Godliness in the church

Edward Smith was a Methodist preacher who was sanctioned by his annual conference for preaching a sermon in 1840 attacking pro-slavery sentiments in the church. The sermon was preached in Ohio. At his trial, the accusers said he was raising up abolition on a par with the teaching of Jesus Christ.

In the book Smith wrote about his trial, he included the offending sermon, which included his rigorous call for the church to be true to its gospel and to practice discipline among its membership. In the excerpt below, he reflects on the costs of not doing so:

Many who belong to the church have not even the form of godliness, much less the power. I knew an old man, about twenty years since, who was an officer in one of the branches of the church. I was well acquainted with him, had lodged with him frequently. I called to see him a day or two before he died. While sitting by his bed, he requested all present, but myself, to leave the room, and then asked me to tell him my Christian experience. I did so. While I was relating the goodness of God to my poor heart, the tears of joy rolled down his time-marked cheeks. When I closed, he said, with emotions of joy, “forty-four years ago I received an evidence of the par don of my sins, and have lived in the enjoyment of it ever since. I have it now, and it makes me joyful in God in view of death: and the nearer it approaches, the more joyful I am ; but you are the first person I ever mentioned it to. I have been taught to believe that it was presumptuous and wicked to make any such profession, and have kept it hid in my heart until this time.” Now here was a member, an officer of one of the churches, that had kept his candle hid under a bushel forty-four years, be cause the church to which he belonged taught that no such state was attainable, and by consequence, such profession would be presumptuous and sinful. And there are still some branches of the church who thus believe. It is surely not uncharitable to say, that all these churches are strangers to experimental religion, strangers to God, and in the way to death; for as salvation is obtained through faith, a man’s salvation never can be greater than his faith. But look at the lives of those who profess to be the followers of Christ. In the church where God first spoke peace to my soul, there were five officers, besides the ministers, and four out of the five were frequent, if not common drunkards. One got so drunk, on one occasion, on the wine that was left from sacrament, that he could not get into the meeting house, and was found, after the second sermon, in a fence corner of an adjoining field, and had to be carried home on a horse like a bag, and no account was taken of the matter.

Smith’s story and this bit of his sermon is fascinating to me. His claim that our salvation can never be greater than our faith cries out for more discussion — at least to me. The contrast between the man dying and crying to tell the secret of his joy with the man being carried home unconscious is fodder for pastoral and theological reflection.

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