Christian Nurture

By Horace Bushnell

Part I. The Doctrine.

Chapter 5


"For she promise is unto you and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call."--Acts, ii. 39.

IT is a matter of wonder, with many professed disciples of Jesus in our time, that if the baptism of children and their qualified introduction into the church is any genuine part of the Christian economy, there is so little authority for it, by express mention in the New Testament writings. And yet, over opposite to this, it is quite as fair a subject of wonder that in Peter's first sermon, on the day of Pentecost, when addressing only the adult sinners of the assembly, in terms appropriate to their age, he should yet have given out, as it were unconsciously, a declaration that can signify nothing but the engagement of Christ, in his new and more spiritual economy, to identify children with their parents, even as they had been identified in the coarser provisions of the Old. "To you and to your children," says the apostle, and here, covertly as it were to himself, are hid infant baptism, infant church relations, potentially present but as yet undeveloped, even in what may be fitly called the seed sermon of the Christian church. This was no time to be thinking of infants, or children, as related to church polity; probably there is not one present in the great assembly. It will be soon enough to settle the church position of children, when the question rises practically afterwards. These converted pilgrims, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and strangers of all names, may not even so much as think of the question till they reach their homes again. But the language, we can see, is Jewish; language of promise, or covenant, only with a Christian addition--"And to them that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call"--and Peter, as we know, did not really come into the meaning of this language himself till years after, when the great sheet let down from heaven three times, and the actual ministering to a Gentile convert, showed him whither, and how far off, the call of the Lord might be going, in these times, to run. Let it not surprise us then, that the facts of infant baptism, and of infant church relations, covered, as they are, by Peter's language in this first sermon, are still not yet developed, even to himself--any more than the fact of Christ's call to the Gentiles.

And when our Baptist brethren reiterate the formula, "believe and be baptized," "believe and be baptized," which they assume to be absolutely conclusive and final on the question of infant baptism because infants can not believe, they have only to make due allowance for the fact that Christianity must needs make its chief address, at the outset, to adult persons, and their argument vanishes. Christianity will of course address itself to the subjects addressed; and, telling them what they must do to be saved, it will not of course tell them, at the same breath, every thing else that is fit to be known. In this manner its language was naturally shaped, for a considerable time, so as to meet only the conditions of adult minds. When at length it shall begin lo be inquired, what is the condition of immature, or infant minds? it will be soon enough to say something appropriate to them.

Besides, the formula has another side--"He that believeth not shall be damned." Does it therefore follow, because it is so continually given to adults as the fixed law of salvation--he that believeth shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned--that infants dying in infancy, and too young to believe, must therefore be inevitably damned? No, it will be answered, even by our Baptist brethren themselves; for the language referred to was evidently designed only for adult persons, and is of course to be qualified so as to meet the demands of reason, when we come to the case of child hood. And why not also the language "believe and be baptized?" Say not that the child is not old enough to believe, and therefore can not be baptized. If he is not old enough to believe, how can he better be saved? Is it a greater, and higher, and more difficult thing to be admitted to baptism, than to be admitted to eternal glory?

Now I can most readily admit that the subject of infant baptism is not as definitely mentioned and formally prescribed in the New Testament, as we might, without any great extravagance, expect. For many will never notice how great a thing it is for Christianity to pass from the first stage of mere propagation, to the stage of a fixed institution. What worlds of modification, correction, new arrangement, are necessary to the transition, they have never observed. They see the real figure of Christianity in the day of Pentecost, having never a conception, it may be, that this figure is most intensely occasional and casual, and the whole scene one that has scarcely a vestige of Christian institution in it.

What I propose, then, is to go over some of the incidents of this Pentecostal scene and show you how it will drop out one point after another, as Christianity becomes a fixed institution; which institutional character, again, will, by a necessary law, bring in other elements whereby to shape itself and complete its organization.

First of all, we are delighted here at the picture given of a new form of society, and a thing so beautiful, so wonderfully hopeful and peculiar, we are ready to think must be the very essence of the new institution itself. "And all that believed were together and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing with one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved." What a picture, taken as a mere external description! Saying nothing of internal experiences, it goes to the simple outward demonstrations, and by these it paints the spring-time, or first blossoming of the Christian love The beauty of the scene consists in the fact, that the disciples hardly know, as yet, what their love signifies. Assembled as pilgrims, from all parts of the world, the Christian love has fallen upon then, and they find, what is altogether new and strange,. that rich and poor, honorable and base, despite of all distinctions, they love one another as brethren! Not knowing what to make of it, or, apparently, whether they are hereafter to have any thing to do but to love one another, they give themselves wholly up to love, as children to a play--come what will, they are all agreed in this, that they want only fellowship with each other, fellowship in doctrine, fellowship in praise, fellowship in bread,--and why not also in goods?

How sad, that a scene so amiable and lovely could not continue, and that all Christian disciples, to the end of the world, could not fall into the same delightful picture in their conduct! Just as sad, I answer, as it is that children can not always be children; for these are the children of love, acting out the simple instinct of love, and wholly ignorant, as yet, of the cares, labors, and confused struggles, in which their Christian spirit is to have its trial. Doubtless we are to regret, as a loss, whatever departure we may have suffered from the spirit of these first disciples; for the spirit of Christian life is one and the same, in all diversities of form and conduct. But it is plain to any one, who will exercise the least consideration, that it was just as impossible to perpetuate these first demonstrations, as it is to preserve the infantile airs of children after childhood is passed, carrying them still on through the sturdy toils and cares of a mature age. The moment we leave these first scenes, following the pilgrims off to their homes, see them entering into the duties of home, see the Christian churches getting body and form in so many places and becoming incorporated as fixed elements of human society, we shall discover that almost all the modes and hospitalities of the Pentecostal society are inevitably discontinued.

But we must go deeper into the history and show, by distinct specification, how intensely casual much that belongs to the scene of the Pentecost was even designed to be, and how many things are to be added to give the new gospel a permanently instituted life. We begin with the things casual that were designed to cease.

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit was here to be inaugurated, as a Divine Force, entered systematically into the world, to work subjectively in men all the characters of love and beauty that are shown objectively in the life of Jesus. He is to be, in other words, a perpetual indwelling Christ in men's hearts. In times more ancient, good men had been wont to pray for spiritual help in a manner correspondent, but now the kingdom of Help, that kingdom which is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, is to be set up as a Christly dispensation. But, at the beginning, there must be something done before the senses, to waken sensuous impressions. Otherwise, whatever power the Spirit might exert in the recesses of the human soul, it would probably occur to no one to refer the effects wrought to a Divine Agency. Hence the wondrous character of the scene, which here bursts upon the world--a sound from heaven, a rushing, mighty wind sweeping through the hall, lambent tips of fire resting on the heads of the assembly, wondrous utterances or tongues.

Now, the physical incidents of this scene had nothing to do with its substantial import, save as they were added to suggest the idea of a Divine Agency. They hold the same mechanical relation, as a vehicle, to the Spirit, that the human nature of Jesus held to the Divine Word. They are the body, the sensible show of the Spirit, the smoke by which the fire was revealed. So of the tongues. They were the sign of a power that was playing the action of the inner man, and making audible, as it were, the activity within, of a Divine Influence. All these, like the miraculous gifts so conspicuous in the subsequent history, were manifestations of the Spirit, given to profit withal; but being only accidents or exponents, were, of course, to be discontinued, when the doctrine of a spiritual influence from God was sufficiently developed--discontinued and never restored, unless perhaps in cases where the sense of the Spirit is so nearly lost as to require a kind of new development. Accordingly as these fall off, the spiritual influence inaugurated by such tokens, may be expected, for much the same reasons, to move upon the world in a less imposing method; to remit, in some degree, the extraordinary, and, as life is itself ordinary, become, to the human spirit, what the air is to the body--a Perpetual Element of inbreathing love; to dwell in the families, to follow the individual, and whisper holy thoughts in solitary places and silent hours. He is to fill the world, and be a Spirit of Life and love, present to all human hearts. He will produce the same exercises, produced in the first disciples, in the scene of the Pentecost. Sometimes, too, he will glorify himself in scenes of social effect and power. But the grand reality revealed is an Abiding Spirit--not a Scene Spirit, but an Abiding Spirit--accordantly with Christ's own promise--"He shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever." When the sound, therefore, which then shook the air is hushed to be heard no more; when the rushing, mighty wind that typified so powerfully the breath of the arriving Spirit of God has dropped into calm; when the fire-tips have ceased to burn on the heads of all assemblies, and all the Pentecostal signs are over; then is there seen to be left as a result, the fixed conviction of a Jesus unlocalized, a Spirit of Jesus pres. ent in all places, working in all hearts, present, in conscious manifestation, to all discerning souls, as the life of their life. How very casual, in this view, is the scene of the Pentecost. And that is very soon discovered. One year afterwards, not even the persons present in that scene look upon it as being, in any sense, a properly institutional element of Christianity. The Spirit inaugurated is institutional, the life of all hol) institutions, but nothing in the forms of the scene is regarded as having a perpetual character.

Again, it will be found that the preaching of the day of Pentecost, powerful as the sermon of Peter appears to have been upon the assembly at that time, was not such, either in style or substance, as could be continued after the first day or two of the gospel proclamation, and was in fact superseded, in a very short time, by the sturdier methods of argument and instruction. We see this in all the epistles, and as truly in those of Peter as of Paul. The infant churches had scarcely begun to be institutions, before this change was apparent.

And yet we have many, in our own time, who do not appear to see this, even though the manner of Peter's sermon is so completely gone by, that one can hardly imagine how it had any power at all. "See," they say, "how simple it was, how easy of apprehension--nothing but a recitation of facts--and then what power it had!" As if the telling, over and over, of old news, announcing again facts that have been known to every reader of the New Testament from his childhood up, as familiarly as he knows his right hand, could have the same value and be means to ends for producing the same effects! Most of us have a better understanding of the subject, perceiving, as clearly as possible, that while Peter's sermon was good for the occasion, it was good for almost no occasion since. It was one of the first things, of which there can not, by the supposition, be many. A camp meeting, or a band of pilgrims gathered for a single week, a thousand miles from home, may well enough desire such kind of preaching as will serve the zest of the occasion. But it is no design of Christianity to get by the need of intelligence, and fashion a sanctity that has no fellowship with dignity. A regularly instituted Christian congregation, who are to live and grow up on the same spot, from age to age, it has long ago been discovered, must be compelled to gird up the loins of their mind. They must reject the mere gospel drinks and betake themselves to meat. Their life, it will be found, depends, not on scenes and machineries, not on storms and paroxysms; but on a capacity rather to receive instruction, to be exercised in high argument, to bear with patience the discovery how little they know; and on a good healthful appetite for Christian food. To be able to burn in a fire decides nothing. They must know how to supply the fuel of devotion out of their own exercise in God's truth. They must love a ministry of doctrine, or intellectual teaching. Neither is it doctrine, as many fancy, when they complain of a want of doctrinal preaching, to get a few stale dogmas impounded in the head, or stuck in the brain, as dead flies in ointment: all the rich treasures of thought, and high motive, and solemn contemplation, garnered up in God's word, must be brought out, seen, understood, and fall upon the soul, as manna from the skies. Like manna, too, it must be the supply of to-day only. A new shower must be gathered for to-morrow, and the mind of the people must be kept in active and progressive motion.

Such a kind of preaching will feed the intelligence of the hearers, and raise up pillars in the churches. And here is the great distinction between the preaching proper to the scene of the Pentecost, and that of an established Christian congregation. It is the difference between Peter, giving news to the pilgrims, and Paul offering some "things hard to be understood," to churches of organized disciples. Such preaching is required, in an established congregation, as will exert an educating power. And yet it will, in that way, be a converting power, as efficacious as any other, if only it is expected to be. When the community is more deeply moved by spiritual things, it will, of course, vary its tone and its subjects to suit the occasion, perhaps multiply its efforts; but never as being in a hurry, lest the grace of the occasion may be capriciously withdrawn, never over-preaching, or preaching out, as if nothing were to be done by thought in the hearers, but all by the power of a commotion round them; for it is not the same thing to fall out of dignity and self-possession as to get rid of sin, neither is a fever or a whirlwind any proper instrument of sanctification. Mournful proofs have we to the contrary. Better is it to reserve a power for the ordinary, even when we are in the extraordinary. It is not wisdom to overwork the harvest, so that we have no strength left for the bread. Rather let the preacher believe in the Abiding Spirit, and count upon a kind of perpetual harvest. Let him think to gain many to Christ imperceptibly, by keeping alive the interest of God's truth, and letting it distill upon the hearers as a dew, and through them on the rising families. Whatever he gains in this way will assuredly remain; for it is not the birth of an occasion, but of quiet conviction. It partakes the nature of habit. It is the fruit of a godly training. Seldom, therefore. will it fall away, or disappoint expectation.

There is yet another class of incidents, or demonstrations, in the scene of the Pentecost, which are referable to the fact that these first converts are not at home, and all these must, of course, be modified, or discontinued by their simple return. They are pilgrims at the feasts; Parthians, Medes, Elamites--Jewish emigrants, who have returned from every most distant clime of the world, to enjoy the great festivals of their religion.

Their property, their business, and, more commonly, their families, are left behind. Many of them are poor persons, wholly unable to support the expense even of a short stay at Jerusalem. The others can not, of course, leave them to suffer. So they divide their resources with the poor; and some, who belong at Jerusalem, are moved by the overflowing love of Christ in their hearts, to part with their whole property, that they may relieve the necessities of the brotherhood. Only a few days or weeks are thus spent together. Probably, within three months, they are, every man, at home in his own house, providing for his own family, out of the increase of his own industry and property. During their short stay at Jerusalem, they had nothing to do but to exercise their religion. Accordingly they gave themselves wholly up to it. Now the religious occasion is past; the extraordinary is over, and the ordinary has returned. By this time, they have learned, probably, and received it even as a Christian maxim, that one who does not provide for his own, denies the faith, and is worse than an infidel.

Again, these first disciples had not yet been called to blend their piety with the common cares and duties of life. Quite likely, they did not, for some time, consider whether they should hereafter have any thing more to do with these gross and earthly callings. But we, at least, have learned what they must also have learned very soon, that though we can not live by bread alone, it is yet difficult to live without bread. We have learned that the very church of God itself is perpetuated, in part, by industry and production, that it can not live by expenditure, that we have something therefore to do, besides breaking bread from house to house; six days to labor, a spectacle of thrift to present to mankind, as a proof that Christian virtue has its blessings. We must shine as good citizens, neighbors, parents, friends. Life is no mere camp-meeting scene; but the greatest of all Christian attainments, we find, is precisely that which the first disciples had not yet thought of, the learning how to blend the spiritual and economical or industrial together; to live in the world, and not be of it; to labor in earthly things, and maintain a conversation in heaven; to unite thrift with charity, and separate gain from greediness; to use property, and not worship it; to prepare comfort, without pursuing pleasure. For it is, by just this kind of trial, that all spiritual strength is gotten, and the Christian life becomes a light to men.

Having glanced, in this manner, at some of the types and conditions of the scene of Pentecost that were, and were inevitably to be, discontinued, let us notice briefly, some of the matters that must also as inevitably be added in the process by which Christianity becomes an institution.

Thus, first of all, as Christ and his evangelists had given the new facts to the world, so it was inevitable that a grand process of thinking or mental elaboration should begin to work out the import or doctrinal interpretation of those facts. In this process, diverse opinions, formulas, sects, controversies, must be developed--consequently new modes of duty.

The simplicity of mere love, displayed, as it was, in the first scenes of the gospel, could not continue, however desirable it may seem. Men must think, as well as love, and thought must make its inroads on mere relations of feeling. And thus a long process of forming and reforming must go on, till the Christ of the head becomes as catholic as the Christ of the heart. Meantime, all must stand for the truth, and there must be no countenance given to error. The happy days of Christian childhood are left far behind, and every church is set in relations of duty that are partly antagonistic. It must take a form required by its new necessities. What to do for the. truth, whom to acknowledge, when to resist and when to forbear, how much consequence to attribute to opinions, over what errors to spread the mantle of charity, how to maintain a polemic attitude in the unity of the Spirit--these are the grave questions that are to occupy ministers and churches, and, in the right exercise of which, they are to justify their Christian name. And on this will depend the power of religion, quite as much as on the duties done to those who are aliens and unbelievers.

Next we pass on to a field where the new creating power of the gospel is displayed yet more distinctly. The first disciples had no thought but to swim in the strange joy they felt, as forgiven of God and filled with the love of Jesus. Of Christianity, as a fixed institution, taking the whole society of man into its bosom, and becoming the school of the race, they had probably, at first, no conception. Passing thence to the modern Christian faith, how great is the change! What a variety of means, instruments and arrangements has it created, maintaining all from age to age, by a sacrifice, compared with which, the casual contributions to poor saints at Jerusalem were far less significant in their effects, and, perhaps, not more to be commended, as proofs of a Christian spirit.

First, a house of worship; and, in order to this, the new spiritual life must become a holder of real estate, and be acknowledged as such in the laws. To make the place worthy of the cause, genius and taste are to be called into exercise, and a new Christian art developed.

To maintain expenses and repairs, and collect and disburse charities, there must be officers created, such as deacons and committees of various kinds, and this requires elections, by-laws, records, and a fully organized institutional state.

Mere forms and sacraments being insufficient, preachers of the word must be carefully trained for the service, and installed therein, to feed the intelligence of the flock, and lead them in the truth. Their official rights and duties must be ascertained, and, correspondently, the rights and duties of the flock-matters all how distant from the scene of the Pentecost!

The times and forms of worship need to be settled; for, whether a liturgy is used or not, no organic action can be maintained without forms of some kind, to serve as laws of concert and rules of order.

Christian music, as a new art, must be created, and the children and youth must be trained therein, so that all may bear their part in the worship, and the worship exercise and inspire a devout feeling in all.

There must be a punctual and regular attendance somehow established and made obligatory; for the habit of worship is necessary to its value, as a power over character. Hence there must be a common responsibility--all must be enlisted. There must be a church spirit, and, in order to this, a fraternal spirit in the members, verified by mutual sympathy and aid under the common burdens of life--a kind of service, I will add, which is often far more beneficent than a community of goods would be; for this latter might be only a premium given to idleness, while the other is but a good encouragement to the ingenuous struggles of industry. There must, however, be some Christian provision for the poor, that they also may have their part in the Christian flock, and the blessings of charity descend upon it and dwell in it.

Nor is the article of dress, in a Christian assembly, too insignificant to be a subject of care. Probably no one had a thought of this in the Pentecostal assembly; but we find the apostles, not long after, giving serious lectures to the disciples upon their dress. Dress and manners, manners and morals, morals and piety, are all connected by an intimate or secret law. A people, therefore, who are careful to appear before God, in a well-chosen, modest, and appropriate dress--one that is neither careless nor ostentatious, one that indicates sobriety, neatness, good sense, and a desire to be approved of God more than to be seen of men--will avoid barbarous improprieties of every sort. Their manner will express reverence to God. What they express, they will be likely to feel; and if they become true disciples of Christ, as there is greater reason to hope, their manner will have a nicer propriety. and their whole demeanor will be more thoughtful, consistent, and lovely.

It may, by and by, become evident that, in order to maintain the full power of religion, and to gain the neglected youth or children, and such children as would grow up otherwise in the power of vice, a parish school must be instituted. as in Scotland, in connection with every church. And then, at a much later day, it may become evident that Sunday-schools require to be instituted in the same way, and that these, enlisting the more capable and devoted of the churches in Christian studies, and good works--works, that is, of teaching and attention to the poor--are finally regarded every where, though wholly unknown to the apostles and the Pentecostal assembly, as being among the best means for the training of a practically Christian character, and the gathering in of the outcast families to God.

So far we proceed without difficulty; all these things, though never preached by apostles, must finally come, we perceive, a outgrowths of the Christian church. Pentecostal incidents will disappear, and these will as certainly grow apace in their time.

But the particular point for which I have drawn this sketch has been purposely left behind. Infant baptism, the relation of the seminal and undeveloped first period of human existence to Christ and his flock, that which appears only implicitly in the sermon of Peter, on the day of Pentecost--where is this, and what is to come, in the way of development, here? There was no reason, or even room, among the scenes of the Pentecost, for so much as thinking on this subject of infants and their church relations, and scarcely more for a considerable time afterward. It could not become a subject of attention, until the church itself began to settle into forms of order and structural organization; and how soon that came to pass we do not definitely know. It should therefore be no subject of wonder that infant baptism figures somewhat indistinctly, for so long a time at least; and scarcely more, that it shows itself only by implication and a kind of tacit development, for a brief time afterwards.

Furthermore, if it came to pass, by a transference of Jewish ideas into Christian spheres, Jewish modes and conditions into the Christian order and economy--just as Peter's Jewish language, when he said, in his Pentecostal speech, "to you and to your children," finally came back to him in its Christian power,--it would make no bold and staring figure any where. If the Christian teachers looked to see all the better mercies of the old economy transferred into the Christian, and exalted there into some higher and more perfect meaning, we ought certainly not to expect any debate, or any thing but a silent, scarcely conscious flow of transition, when infants are taken to be with their parents, in the church, the covenant, the Christian Israel of their faith. And in just this way the defect of any bold declarations on the subject of infant baptism in the writings of the New Testament, and the fact that it appears only in a few historic glimpses, and occasional modes of speech that are subtle implications of the fact, is sufficiently accounted for.

But we are inquiring after the mode in which this rite became an accepted element of the Christian organization, and a part of the church practice, as we certainly know that it did at sometime afterward. Peter probably conceived as little what his language might infer respecting it, as he certainly did, what hidden import there was in his testimony, by the same words. of a grace to the Gentiles; for he spoke in prophetic exaltation, as the ancient prophets did, not knowing what the spirit of Christ that was in them did signify. But suppose one of these adult converts at the Pentecost to have set off, after the few happy weeks of his sojourn are ended, for his home in some remote region of Arabia, Parthia, or Greece. He carries Christ with him, he is a new man, filled with a strange joy, burning with a strange, all-sacrificing love to the cause of his new Master, and to every sinner of mankind. He begins to preach the Christ he loves to his friends, tells them all he knows of the new gospel, speaks to them as one whom Christ has endowed with power to speak. He gathers a little circle, which we may call a church, around him, perhaps converts a little obscure synagogue into a church. He knows that he himself was baptized as a token of his faith, and he has heard, a thousand times repeated, Christ's word, "he that believeth and is baptized," "except a man be born of water and of the Spirit," and he does not scruple to baptize all his new fellow disciples. Then comes the question, what of the families? what of the infants we have, who are not old enough to believe? This, on the supposition that he had heard nothing of infant baptism before he left Jerusalem, which may or may not be true. But he has heard the whole story of Christ's life many times over, including the fact of his beautiful interest in children, and his declaration-"of such is the kingdom." He recollects also the ancient religion of his people; how it identified always the children with the fathers, and included them in the covenant of the fathers, raising doubtless the question, whether the gospel in its nobler, wider generosity and completer grace, would fall short even of the old religion in its tenderness to the family affections, and its provisions for the religious unity of families. And just here, we will suppose, the words of Peter, in that first sermon flash on his recollection--"For the promise is to you and to your children." They meant almost nothing, it may be, when they were spoken, but how full and clear the meaning they now take. It is like a revelation. The doubt struggling in his bosom is over, the question is settled. "My children," he says, "are with me, one with me in my faith, included with me in all my titles and hopes, and as I came in, out of the defilements of sin, and was baptized in token of my cleansing, so too are they to share my baptism and be heirs together with me in the grace of life."

Thus instructed, he will baptize his children, and( make his religion a strictly family grace, expecting them to grow up in it; others also consenting with him in the same conclusion, and offering their children to God in the same manner. And, as the result, they will no more be Christians with families, but Christian families--all together in the church of God. In this manner the Pentecost itself, when the seeds that are in it are developed, will almost certainly issue the adult baptism there begun, the baptism of the three thousand, in the common baptism of the house.

And here we have, in small, just what would most naturally take place in the development of Christianity itself. Taken as connected with its own precedent history and preparations, the church could hardly be held back from infant baptism, except by some specific revelation.