The Nature, Importance, and Means of Eminent Holiness throughout the Church

Image: Picture courtesy of The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68634494
What is holiness, according to Beecher? How was the holiness movement connected to the “regeneration of the world”? What did Beecher mean when he spoke of the regeneration of the world? How did the holiness and reform movements view man, God, and nature?
What are the differences between the religion that Beecher preached and the religion that Franklin had in mind? In the Temperance Address, what was Lincoln’s concern with the kind of religion that Beecher preached?

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Introduction

Edward Beecher (1803–1895) was a prominent minister and writer, and a member of a remarkable family. He was the son of Lyman Beecher (1775–1863), a preeminent antebellum minister, proponent of revivalism, and controversialist; the brother of Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), the most prominent and controversial minister of the mid-nineteenth century; and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Edward Beecher was himself a prominent abolitionist and social reformer.

In this sermon, Beecher expressed the view that the millennium—a period of peace and godliness on earth predicted in Revelation 20—must come about before Christ returns. The millennium, Beecher said, is the “intervening event between the first coming of the Savior to redeem, and his final advent to judge the world.” This view, referred to as post-millennialism (i.e., Christ will come after the millennium) was a powerful force behind the “evangelical empire”—the collection of Protestant organizations that sought to reform and evangelize America to make it worthy of the return of Christ. Beecher mentioned a number of the causes (temperance, missions, Sabbath observance) these organizations served. But he argued that such reform movements were not enough. To bring about the millennium and hasten Christ’s return, Christians should aim at holiness. Not only should they experience a conversion to a Christ-centered life—become born again, as this experience has long been known—they had to recognize sin as vile and loathsome, crucify it, and aim for communion with God. This demand for holiness underlay the fervency of the reformers, including the abolitionists, and understanding it is essential for understanding American politics in the antebellum period.

Beecher and those who thought like him may be understood as radicalizing the providential history presented by John Quincy Adams. Abraham Lincoln analyzed Beecher’s view of religion and its political implications in his Temperance Address. Millennialism did not disappear after the Civil War, nor did Protestant evangelists’ efforts to reform society. Millennialism became “pre-millennialism,” the view that the millennium would begin only when Christ returned to earth to defeat evil. In this version, millennialism continues to influence many Protestants, as does the view that to be saved one must be born again. The impulse to reform tended to become secularized as post-millennialism faded. This secular “millennialism” exerted a strong influence over late-nineteenth-century populism and progressivism (See The Farmers’ Movement, The New Nationalism, What Is Progress?, The Bible at the Center of the Modern University, Shall the Fundamentalists Win?).

—David Tucker

Source: The American National Preacher or Original Monthly Sermons from Living Ministers of the United States, ed. Rev. Austin Dickinson (New York: West & Trow,1834–36), vol. 10, nos. 1 and 2, 193–224, available at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.ah3n5a&view=1up&seq=10&skin=2021.


Matt. 16:3. Can ye not discern the signs of the times?

Rom. 14:17. For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.

Luke 17:20–21. The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

Isaiah 52:1–2. Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for henceforth there shall no more come unto thee the uncircumcised and the unclean. Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem; loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion.

In the progress of the cause of God on earth, there are certain great crises, or turning points of destiny, full of deep interest to him and to the intelligent universe. Such was the coming of Christ, an event around which were concentrated the interests of the whole human race, and of the moral government of God in all ages.

The advent of such eras is announced beforehand, and preceded by signs. The event stands predicted on the prophetic page, throwing its light into the dark regions of futurity; and God himself, as the long-expected day draws near, so orders his providence that signs may be seen on every side. He holds up a standard to his people, and calls on them to behold it from afar.

When he does this, it is their duty to notice such signs, to be fully aware of their import, and to act accordingly; and to do this is rightly to discern the signs of the times.

To none are these great truths more applicable than to Christians of every denomination of the present age.1 By the sure word of prophecy a great event has been announced as near at hand. It is the regeneration of the world. An event which, like a lofty mountain summit, rises to view on the chart of prophecy, as the great intervening event between the first coming of the Savior to redeem, and his final advent to judge the world.

The advent of this day is also preceded by its appropriate signs, which may be clearly seen by all of unblinded vision, but to mention which, time will not now permit. And to a great extent these signs are seen and understood, and the people of God seem to be making preparation for correspondent action.

Beneath the inspiring influence of the Almighty, the universal church is aroused, excited, and agitated by the persuasion that a glorious advent of the kingdom of God is near at hand. The conversion of the world to God is no longer regarded as merely the glorious but distant vision of inspired prophets. As a vivid reality, and near even at the door, it rises in all its majesty and soul-exciting power before the mind, awakening intense desire, and urging to incessant effort. Under this influence the church is daily approaching nearer to a full conception of all that is involved in a deliberate, all-absorbing effort to accomplish the mighty whole.

The field is the world, and the plans of the present age are as comprehensive as the field, and the church seems determined not to rest until the gospel shall be preached to every creature. Nor is this all. A result is to be expected, and should be aimed at, unlike anything ever seen or conceived of on earth before. Not merely to fill the earth with the knowledge of the Lord, not merely to preach the gospel to every creature, but to reorganize human society in accordance with the law of God. To abolish all corruptions in religion, and all abuses in the social system, and, so far as it has been erected on false principles, to take it down and erect it anew. Hence incessant efforts are made to extend the influence of the Christian system into all departments of life; and all institutions, usages, and principles, civil or religious, are exposed to a rigid and fiery scrutiny. Abuses are assailed, and the whole community is in a state of constant agitation. Nor is this state of things destined to cease till the heavens and the earth have been shaken at the advent of God; till the last remnant of rebellion has passed away from the earth, and the human race shall repose in peace beneath the authority of Him whose right is to reign.

How great the privilege, and how great the responsibility of living in an age like this; and to one who deeply feels the responsibility, and the shortness of life, how natural the inquiry—How can I do most to secure the end in view? My time is short, the work is great. I desire to enter into it with all my heart and soul, and to be supremely engaged in some department of action. Which shall I select?

The inquiry is appropriate. A man cannot be supremely devoted to all departments of action. He must lay out his main energies in some one. He needs and must have a ruling passion, an all-absorbing purpose of the soul, of power to draw all else into its current, and render all else subservient to itself. And the natural course is to select some one of the great enterprises of the present age, and throw into that all the energies of the soul. Nor is it difficult to find an enterprise large enough to absorb the whole soul. Any one is vast enough to give exercise to more than all the energies of the highest mind, and to him who meditates much and deeply on it, to fill the whole horizon of his vision, and to seem more intimately connected than any other with the salvation of the world. Thus to one the cause of Sabbath schools may easily become the most important of all; to another, foreign and domestic missions; to another, the discussion and defense of doctrinal truth, and the exposure of error; to another, the cause of temperance; and to another, the circulation of tracts, or of the word of God. These and similar enterprises are, without doubt, great and glorious beyond conception. But neither one of them is or can become the leading and most important enterprise of the present age. Neither one of them can deserve to become the all-absorbing object of the soul, nor can safely so become.

This prominence belongs to one enterprise and only one. An enterprise at present not at all recognized as a great enterprise of the age, or as an enterprise at all; and on which public apathy is deep and general. Yet, on reflection, it must be seen to be the only one which deserves the first rank, and the only one to which it is safe to give supreme and all-absorbing power in the soul, so as to compel us to view all other subjects only in their relations to it. The enterprise to which I refer is this:

The immediate production of an elevated standard of personal holiness throughout the universal church—such a standard of holiness as God requires, and the present exigencies of the world demand.

That such a standard of holiness ought to exist, cannot be denied; that it will exist hereafter, is expected. But its indispensable necessity now, this very day is not felt as it ought to be, nor the possibility of producing it; and adequate efforts to secure it are not made. These things ought not so to be. The attention of the whole church should be at once aroused to the subject and fixed intently on it, and the work of producing such a standard of holiness deliberately undertaken, as the first great enterprise of the present day. That it is such is the obvious import of our text.2 It teaches us that the kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom, that its advent depends on no secular power, and implies no worldly victories, no external splendor, no earthly dominions, but simply that reign of God over man which is the result of holiness in the soul. From this it is manifest that the kingdom of God can make no real progress except by an increase of holiness, and can never be fully established on earth till holiness prevails in its highest power. Of course, to secure such a prevalence of holiness ought to be the great business of the present day. Still further to illustrate this truth, I propose,

I. To consider what is implied in a standard of holiness adapted to the exigencies of the present age. . . .

1. Communion with God deserves a prominent place, as the foundation of all high attainments in holiness.

By communion with God I understand an interchange or reciprocal exercise of views and feelings between God and the soul, when, according to his promise, he draws near, and manifests himself to those who love him.

This is both a reasonable and intelligible state of mind. Men are so made that they can exchange with each other both views and emotions, and this is essential to the highest degree of love and mutual confidence. And the same is no less true of the relations that exist between men and God. He is a holy being, and has infinite intellect and emotions, and if emotions exist in us of a corresponding kind, there is a rational basis laid for union with him, not only in views but in emotions. Hence it is said, “every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God and God in him.”3 And all Christians familiarly speak of this state of mind as involving a sense of the presence of God. It was this state of mind which David desired when he longed, and thirsted, and fainted after God, and which he actually enjoyed when he said, “thy loving kindness is better than life,” and spoke of his soul as “satisfied with marrow and fatness”4 while in a state of joyful communion with God, and when he exclaimed, “whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none on earth that I desire besides thee.”5

This is the very foundation of all high attainments in holiness. The great and fundamental principle of Christianity is, that the mind of unrenewed man is entirely corrupt and degraded. Even the mind of a renewed man has no self-restoring power. Left to itself, it would again subside into passions and purposes corrupt and only corrupt. Nor is there any way to restore it to perfect purity, but to bring it under the renovating influence of the pure and holy mind of God. In him are found the only causes adequate to produce this result—infinite power of exhibiting the truth, and infinite holy emotion to destroy the deadness and apathy of the soul. Both these influences are needed, and either without the other is ineffectual. And both reside in God alone. Hence the whole progress of the work of moral renovation depends entirely on putting the mind wholly under the influence of the illuminating intellect and holy emotions of Jehovah. He is our life. In him holy emotions glow, pure, intense, unmixed. And when his glories beam upon the soul, and the elevating and invigorating power of his holiness is felt, then sinful emotions subside and die, and the soul is filled with all the fullness of God. But let him retire, and sin revives again, and we die. On this point I speak to those who have experienced in their own hearts the influence of holy communion with God. I may fail to describe the state of mind with metaphysical exactness. But do you not know, by your own experience, that the thing itself is a reality? The Bible also speaks on the subject with the utmost fullness. What else is meant by “dwelling in God, and God dwelling in us?” or by the promise, “ye shall know that ye are in me, and I in you?”6 or by the promise, “I will love him, and manifest myself unto him?”7

But if communion with God is a reality, to increase it throughout the church is the foundation of all efforts to elevate the standard of holiness. It is by the life of God alone that the church can be made fully alive. The first great object then should be to remove all that prevents communion with God, to elevate our views and enlarge our desires on this subject and to bring the church of every denomination fully under the power of his own infinitely pure and almighty mind. Then, and then alone, may we hope that the church will truly begin to live. Then, and then only, will she be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. Intimately connected with this, and originating from it is—

2. Faith. By this I mean such firm belief and clear and habitual views of divine and eternal things, as shall correct all false estimates of the worth of earthly joys, or the evils of earthly sufferings, and give to motives, derived from things unseen and eternal their full power upon the mind, as vivid and present realities. . . .

Let it not, however, be supposed that such faith can originate from the independent and unaided reflection of the human mind. It is the gift of God, and is the result of intimate and habitual communion with him. To his mind, the realities of eternity have an absolute certainty, and he fully appreciates and feels their worth. Hence, as we have communion with him, he transfers his own views, and his own certainty, and his own emotions, to our minds. Eternity rises before us in all its grandeur and glory. The joys of heaven and the woes of hell become real, and the mind surrenders itself to the full and overpowering impression of the scene. . . .

. . . Such is the appropriate and natural result of a true view of things, and when it takes place, all our wishes and interests will be entirely identified with those of God, so that we shall have no plans, no purposes, no ends of our own. And such will be our love to him, that the promotion of his glory and the advancement of his cause will become “entirely essential to our happiness.” This is an important point—it is the great point to be urged in the present age. That Christians should no longer cherish a mere general determination to serve God on the whole, resulting in feebleness of heart, low degrees of liberality, and irregular and inefficient action, but give themselves and all they have away wholly to the Lord, and so identify all their interests with those of God. Are you in such a state of mind that you can be happy while God is dishonored and his cause declining on earth? Can you sleep at ease and enjoy the pleasures of life, whilst your fellow men are sinking to woe eternal? Does wealth increase, or honors multiply, or worldly prosperity attend you, and do such things fill you with joy and satisfy all the cravings of your soul? Is there in you no aching void which such things can never fill? Where then is your love of God, and entire devotedness to his cause? He is still dishonored, and his cause languishes on earth; but you can be happy! Where, I ask again, is your supreme love to God, and devotedness to his cause? . . .

4. Moral sensibility to the evils of sin is another point in which the standard of holiness needs to be greatly elevated.

A high degree of moral repulsion from sin is always a striking characteristic of a holy mind. Among the holy in heaven, we shall find not only right purposes and holy emotions, but the highest loathing of sin. Indeed, this is an essential characteristic of a holy mind, and no mind that has it not, can be in a healthy moral state. Sin is truly odious, loathsome, and repulsive. No natural pollution can for a moment be compared to it in this respect. And if our minds were in a proper moral state, we should shrink from it in all its forms, with loathing and horror unutterable. . . . We are commanded not only to put on the new man, but to put off the old man: not only to walk after the Spirit, but to crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts thereof:8 and in the latter work lies no small part of the duty of a Christian. It is not enough that the main purpose of the soul be changed, and that a Christian be on the whole, for God and not against him, and that he organize his life on this general hypothesis. All this may be done, and yet unfathomable depths of wickedness remain unexplored, and unutterable energies of sin remain within, unsubdued. A change of heart is but the first blow which the old man receives, and though in its ultimate results it is a mortal wound, he is yet far from dead. The work of entirely crucifying and eradicating all remains of sin is yet to be performed. And it is an arduous work. . . .

It ought, then, to be a leading object of the present age, to produce a more exquisite moral sensibility to the evils of all sin. No sin should be deemed trivial or venial. All should be abhorred. There should be the feelings of heaven on this subject. The evils of moral pollution should be felt, and mourned over as they would be in heaven, before the throne of God, where every robe is pure and spotless. And if the church will commune with God as she ought, she can gain this also. His feelings are pure and unmixed, and can impart a healthy energy to our own. He can teach us to loathe all our sins, even as he does, to crucify them with unsparing severity, and to long after perfect purity with the intensity of his own desires.

Footnotes
  1. 1. A denomination is a Protestant church organization. With the separation of church and state at the American Founding, there could not be an official national religion. By accepting use of the term “denomination,” various types of Protestant organizations recognized each other and their equality.
  2. 2. The biblical passages cited at the beginning of the sermon.
  3. 3. 1 John 4:7, 16.
  4. 4. Psalm 63:5.
  5. 5. Psalm 73:25.
  6. 6. Beecher seemed to be referring to John 15:4–5, 7.
  7. 7. John 14:21.
  8. 8. Ephesians 4:22–24; Colossians 3:9–10.
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