The GOSPEL TRUTH
CHARLES G. FINNEY
To a Subscriber to the Oberlin College Theological Fund
7 November 1857
[Published in The Oberlin Evangelist, December 9, 1857, pp. 194-5.]
The following letter was occasioned, as its contents show, by the circumstance that one of the subscribers to the Theological Fund declined further payment on account of his financial embarrassments. The points made in the letter are so practical in their bearings on the support of all the enterprises of Christ's church, and are withal so ably and so kindly argued, that we cannot hesitate to lay it, though long, before our readers, and commend it to their special attention&emdash;ED.]
CONSECRATION NOT A PRETENSE
OBERLIN, Nov. 7th, 1857.
MY DEAR BROTHER:&emdash;Yours of the 2d inst. is received. Its contents, together with similar ones received by our Treasurer from other sources, lay me under the necessity of making, through the press, an appeal to the friends of this and similar institutions at this crisis.
1. The existence and necessity of religion are facts.
2. The Church of God is committed, by public profession and solemn covenant vows, to sustain, by every means within its power, the necessary institutions of religion. This obligation is second to no other.
3. Christian seminaries of learning, especially those engaged directly in the education of ministers and teachers of religion, are among the most indispensable means of the continued existence of the Christian Church and the Christian religion on earth. The same may be said of nearly all the great benevolent enterprises of the present day. To sustain these by prayer and labors, and by every lawful means, is the great business of the Church of God. To this end they have and hold all their worldly possessions. To promote religion is really the only mission. They are God's stewards, and it is not lawful for them even to eat of God's food, or drink of his water, nor to breathe his air, except as they do so for him and as a means of extending his kingdom. This you will admit. A solemn promise, made under the most solemn circumstances, so to live and do, and use our all, is involved in making a profession of religion.
4. Hence the indebtedness of every member of the Church of God to the essential institutions of religion, is the most absolute and sacred of any possible indebtedness. From the moment they profess the Christian religion, they are, by public profession, only the stewards of Christ, and are under the most solemn pledges to hold themselves and their all in the attitude of entire consecration to the support of all these institutions of religion. From the moment of their public or private consecration to God, they are totally incapable of laying themselves under a moral obligation to dispose of themselves or their possessions, in any manner inconsistent with their covenant engagements to Christ and his cause. They can contract no debts that invalidate the claims of the institutions of religion. They can no more supercede these claims by business contracts, than a Jew, under the old dispensation, could supercede the claims of the Levites for tithes, or the claims of the sanctuary and priesthood for offerings, by business engagements. Their tithes and offerings were their most sacred debts. These claims were prior and paramount to all other claims, and it was impossible for a Jew to lay himself under obligation to repudiate his indebtedness to the institutions of religion.
The spirit of this law is in full force under the Christian dispensation. For example: there is a class of men, called of God, to attend directly and exclusively upon the essential institutions of religion. "They have no inheritance among their brethren." That is, they cannot consistently engage in business, traffic, and money-making. They have families, talents, and most of them an expensive education. Their talents and education would enable them to secure wealth, were they not called of God to another department of labor. In calling them to separate themselves from money-making and traffic, God impliedly pledges their support by the business-members of his Church. He virtually appoints them tithes and offerings for their support. Whenever a person makes profession of religion, he thereby voluntarily pledges to them this support. The tithes were not a gift, to be made or withheld at discretion. Nor is the due support of the Christian institutions of religion a gift, a donation, that may be made or withheld at discretion. The support of those institutions, and of those called to give up their time to them, is the most sacred of all debts, and this obligation can never be superceded by any business contract whatever. If it could, circumstances might arise in which it might be the duty of the Church to abandon every religious enterprise, close all their churches and Sabbath schools and institutions of Christian education, sell the churches and communion service, beggar and drive to starvation all the men and their families called to attend to these institutions, and thus banish the religion of Jesus from the world.
5. I have spoken, thus far, of the universal obligation of Christians, implied in the profession of Christ's religion. But there is another class to which I must refer. There are many who in addition to the sacred obligations assumed in making profession of religion, have solemnly pledged to pay certain sums, at certain times, to particular religious institutions. These are bona fide debts. Upon the good faith of these pledges, as well as upon the general obligation and integrity of the Church of God, these institutions, and the men conducting them, commit themselves and the cause of God, having no other dependence, and making no other arrangement for their support. These are known and acknowledged facts. No debts can be more absolute and more sacred than these pledges. The payment of no debts whatever can be more important and indispensable. Nothing can be more unjust, cruel, and ruinous to the cause of Christ, than to repudiate these sacred debts. Who can deny this? Now, my brother, how are we to account for the fact that Christian men, whenever a commercial crisis comes on, are so ready to repudiate these, the most solemn, important, and sacred of all their debts? Can it be that, after all, they regard these pledges in the light of mere donations to God, without any value received, and therefore in conscience not binding? Do they count such promises as mere acts of generosity, and conclude that they must be just before they are generous, and therefore without hesitation or remorse, repudiate these pledges, that they may pay their other and less sacred debts? These commercial crises fall with a deeply embarrassing weight upon business men. But in consequence of this habit of repudiating pledges to religious institutions, these crises come down on these institutions, and the families called to attend to them, with the power of annihilation. These families are at once and unawares absolutely deprived of the very means of subsistence. Is this right? On what conceivable principle of honor or honesty do they repudiate these engagements, that they may not "suspend" even the payment of their other debts? Repudiation had at one time well-nigh broken up this immense institution. It did quite reduce its Faculty to the utmost straits, and some of us knew not where our next day's food was to come from. My brother, is the present commercial crisis to witness these things over again? It would seem so from your and other letters received.
Do the Church wish us to abandon this enterprise? I was sent here by men now living with their solemn pledge of support. I and others thus came, and have thus continued, by their request, and upon their and others' solemn pledges of support. Now, I cannot see why there should be or how there can be, any repudiation of these pledges, at all consistent with justice or truth to us or to God. You request me "not to draw upon you any more, for, under existing circumstances, you do not think it duty to make, at present, any further investments in Oberlin." Now, my dear brother, how am I to understand you? In drawing upon you, I was only acting in accordance with your written pledge to give a certain sum quarterly for the support of the Theological Professors of Oberlin College, "reserving to yourself only the right to give more" (not less) "to that object." Now, my dear brother, how am I to understand your letter? What you say seems to assume that your pledge imposes no moral obligation on you to pay. You merely repudiate. You do it, you say, that by the blessing of God upon your efforts, you may avoid suspending the payment of your debts. This, my dear brother, sounds strangely. Had you, without moral wrong, found yourself a bankrupt, and utterly unable to pay any of your debts, this might have brought you under the operation of a principle that might have justified your course in this case. But if, on the other hand, while you are able to pay, and expect to pay, your other debts, you fail to redeem the general pledge, given when you made a profession of religion, or those specific pledges to particular objects, I should hardly regard it as other than tempting God to expect His blessing upon efforts to pay your other debts. Now, suppose all Christian men to adopt this course in this crisis. Then all the great benevolent enterprises of the Church of God must be suspended. The ministry cannot be supported. The churches must be closed, or sold with the communion service to pay the business debts of the membership, and God must be given to understand that He may expect donations from them to sustain religion when "times are easier." Do not, my dear brother, understand me as finding fault with you. You have hitherto done well for Oberlin, and I trust for religious institutions generally. I only beg of you not now to get into a panic, and act upon a principle which will, in all probability, sooner or later, plunge you into hopeless bankruptcy, and which, if acted upon generally, will ruin the church of God. How differently do most men reason from a friend of mine who was traveling, and more than 4,000 miles from home. On Saturday night he was robbed of nearly all his money. He regarded it as a rebuke for spending so much of God's money upon himself and family, and comparatively so little to sustain the Gospel.
On Sunday morning he reserved money enough to pay his expenses to New York, where he could command more, and put all the rest left by the robber, $30 I think it was, into the missionary collection made that day in church. He had been what the church regard as a munificent doer for Christ's cause. But so he regarded it, and so he acted. Now, my dear brother, I suppose Christian business men generally should regard their present embarrassments, in a great measure at least, as attributable to their selfish use of God's property. Would they be much mistaken in this, think you? And suppose, also, that instead of repudiating pledges already made, and upon the good faith of which great interests are committed, they take the ground that such pledges are the last to be repudiated, and that the institutions essential to the progress of religion must and shall be sustained, if they can be by any reasonable self-sacrifice, would they err in such resolutions? But suppose that the first pledges to be repudiated are those made to religious institutions, and amongst their earliest retrenchments they cut off their appropriations to such institutions, would this be right or wise? Should any take such a course as this last, could you avoid the conclusion that their consecration to God was nothing more than a pretense? But, after adopting such a course, suppose they should expect the blessing of God upon efforts to pay their worldly debts, do you, my brother, think this would be acceptable to God? Remember, my brother, if you may lawfully repudiate, others may, and where would such a course lead to?
My dear brother, I do not write thus to you merely because of the sum pledged by you, and for the want of which our theological faculty must suffer, but I do so to expostulate with you and others for so hastily adopting a principle of action that must be death to the cause of religion, if carried out. The cause of Christ, and the institutions of religion, are surely not to be regarded as a vast system of mendicancy. No; they only ask simple justice of the membership of Christ's Church. They only demand the fulfilment of the most solemn pledge ever made by Christ's members. Every member of Christ's Church, by virtue of his membership, stands publicly sworn to devote all to the promotion of His cause, and, by irresistible inference, to regard and treat all pledges to the direct support of those religious institutions, upon which the very continuance of the Church depends, as the most sacred of all obligations, and not rather as mere gratuitous promises of grace, on their part, without a value received, and to be kept or repudiated at discretion.
My brother, I have thought that business men are often driven into bankruptcy for acting on the false principle that has been the occasion of this letter. They begin their retrenchments at the wrong end. Instead of first denying themselves, they often first deny the cause of Christ. I have known men to fail in business, and fail to redeem their pledges to Christian institutions, and afterwards to pay off their other debts, but make no account of redeeming their pledges to those institutions. How is this? I cannot account for this except upon the supposition that they never regarded their pledges to sustain Christ's cause in the light of debts, nor their promise and profession of consecration when they joined the Church, as more than a gratuitous promise, to be kept or broken at discretion.
Now, in conclusion, my dear brother, let me beseech you not to regard this letter either as a beg or a dun for money, or merely as coming from one who is interested in the course you pursue; but as being the outburst of a heart that loves you, and would, if possible, preserve you from injuring your own soul and the cause of God, and as expressing sentiments long cherished and acted upon as fundamental principles of Christ's religion. I beg of you, my brother, to consider well the principle you adopt, and the bearing of its universal adoption, and dare to abide by all the pledges implied in your Christian profession, and all the specific pledges to particular religious institutions. Let your failure to pay these be your last failure, and you will not want. If you persist in fulfilling your pledges to Christ and His cause, He will persist in helping you.
On the other hand, if panic-stricken, you begin by the repudiation of the spirit of your vows and pledges to support His institutions, you let go His covenant, and throw yourself without the purview of His promises. Suppose a steward, when hard times come on, should conclude to make no more donations to his employer until times were easier. My dear brother, it has long appeared to me that the true character of every professor of religion is best known by the practical working out of his professed consecration. Does he really and practically hold everything as devoted to the upbuilding of the cause of Christ? or does he only do what is nothing more than an apology for consecration? Let not this remark be received as a reflection upon you. It is not so intended, nor do I believe that you have belied your profession in this respect. But is not much that is done by professors, for Christ's cause, little better than tempting God, by turning Him off with the crumbs that fall from their tables? Do receive this, my dear brother, as kindly as it is intended. I believe you will. I cannot believe you will resent the faithful expression of my opinion.
Your Brother in the bonds of the blessed Gospel,
C. G. FINNEY.
This letter was reprinted (with some minor differences) in The Independent (New York: 26 November 1857), p. 2. As a result, Lewis Tappan, treasurer of the American Missionary Association, wrote the following letter to Hamilton Hill, the treasurer of Oberlin College :
Rooms of the American Missionary Association,
48 Beekman Street,
New York, Dec 18th 1857
My Dear Sir,
Mrs B. S. W. Goodhue of Na[n]tick, Mass, in sending a small donation to the A. M. S. wishes me to send $1 of the money enclosed to the Oberlin College as her response to Mr. Finney's letter in the Independent. "His appeal has reached & somewhat moved me to contribute a "mite" in that direction,["] she says.
$1 is enclosed
H. Hill, Esqr.
This letter is not in the Oberlin College Archives.
This occurred as a result of the financial crash of 1837, when most of the wealthy subscribers to the original endowment fund of Oberlin College met with financial disaster. See details in The Memoirs of Charles G. Finney (1989), pp. 381-2, 387.
Manuscript in Oberlin College Archives.