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A Political Dissenter

by C. H. Spurgeon
From the March 1873 Sword and Trowel

Spurgeon

DURING the last month it has been our lot to be abused both in public and by letter as few men have been, for having in a few sentences expressed our belief that Caesar had better mind his own things, and let the things of God alone. Many of the letters we have received are of such a character that they would disgrace the cause of Beelzebub himself. Certainly, the alliance of Church and State will never come to an end from want of bullies to defend it. A few communications have been courteous, and even rational, but by far the larger proportion have been simply an amalgam of abusive epithets and foolish bombast. We are by no means fond of such things, and yet so far from being depressed by them they have even caused us a little extra mirth. Our experience as to the effect of furious attacks has been somewhat similar to that of Luther, of whom Michelet has the following note: "Being one day in very high spirits at table, 'Be not scandalised,' he said, 'to see me so merry. I have just read a letter violently abusing me. Our affairs must be going on well, since the devil is storming so.'"
    From the remarks which follow we most emphatically exempt certain honorable clergymen who love a man none the less for being outspoken, and do not require silence as the price of their friendship. Some such we know and honor. They are men of a noble stamp; fair antagonists when they must oppose, and brethren in Christ even then. Would God there were more such, and then the exasperations which now embitter discussion would give place to mutual concessions, or at worst to courteous arguments.
    Among the charges hurled at us is one which our accusers evidently regard as a very serious one. They call us "a Political Dissenter," and seem as if they had delivered themselves of a terrible epithet, whose very sound would annihilate us. It is a curious fact that neither the sound nor the sense of those awful words has impressed us with fear, or moved us to repentance. Politics, if they are honest, are by no means sinful, or the office of a legislator would be fatal to the soul, and Dissenters, if they dissent from error, are commendable individuals: as, therefore, neither the "political" nor the "dissenter" is necessarily bad, the mixture of two good or indifferent things can scarcely be intolerably evil. One would imagine from the mouthing which our opponents give to the words, that a political Dissenter must be a peculiarly ferocious kind of tiger, a specially venomous viper, or perhaps a griffin, dragon, or "monster dire, of shape most horrible;" but as far as we can make out the meaning of the words, he is only a Dissenter who demands his natural civil rights, a Nonconformist who longs for that religious equality before the law which impartial justice should award to every citizen. A Dissenter who is godly and humble, and knows his duty to his betters, and walks in a lowly and reverential manner to them, is never political; he is styled pious, and held up to admiration at meetings of the Church Defence Association, though at other places, seeing that with all his piety he is still a Dissenter, he is duly snubbed by the same parish priests who so much admire him. If a Dissenter would have a good report of those within the Established pale he must toady to all rectors, vicars, and curates—he must "bless God for raising up such a bulwark for our Protestant liberties as the Church of England as by law established," or at least; he must be contentedly silent under his wrongs, and never open his mouth to obtain his rights. Cease to be a man, and you will be a pious Dissenter; but speak out and show the slightest independence of mind, and you will be an odious political Dissenter. Be thankful for the toleration which you enjoy, and eat your humble pie in a corner, and the rector will condescend to meet you at the Bible Society's meetings; but dare to call your soul your own and you shall be put into the black books, among those dreadful emissaries of Mr. Miall. Piety in the clerical mind is pretty generally synonymous with subservience to their reverences, but we hope that without being utterly impious we may question the correctness of their judgment. Some of the most prayerful, spiritual, and Christ-like men we have ever met with, were as fully convinced of the evils of the present establishment, and as earnest for separation between Church and State, as ever we can be. They were saints, and yet political Dissenters: they lived near to God, and enjoyed daily fellowship with heaven, and yet, like the apostle Paul, they valued their civil rights, and spoke out when they saw them invaded. As names and forms of departed worthies rise before us, men of whom the world was not worthy, who were the political Dissenters of their day, we feel reassured, and are by no means disposed to change our company. The men who judged the piety of our predecessors, as they now judge ours, must be little acquainted with what piety means if they separate it from courage and independence. Their endorsement of our piety we never asked, and if they gave it we should begin to suspect our own position before God. Far from us be the cringing, cowardly sycophancy which makes the poor dissenting minister the patronised minion of the aristocratic rector; equally far from us be the obsequious silence which gains custom for the Nonconformist tradesman who sells his conscience as well as his wares. If these be pious, may we be clear of such piety. To us let it happen to speak the truth and bow the knee to no man, if this be what is meant by being political.
    It is easy to throw stones at others, but glass houses should whisper caution. If it be so terrible an evil for a Dissenter to be political, what must be the condition of a political Churchman? Yet every clergyman is just that, since he is the employee of a political church, or rather he is commissioned by the political authorities to attend to the national religion; he is therefore a political Churchman ex officio. Moreover, if it be a serious injury to the piety of a Dissenting minister to attend a meeting of the Liberation Society once in a year, is there no loss of grace in attending a Church Defence Association? Mr. Spurgeon speaks about a score sentences in a sermon upon Caesar and his proper sphere, and this is so detrimental to his soul's prosperity that he receives letters by the score from excessively gracious Churchmen who are in agonies over his spiritual declension. This is very kind, and motherly, but is the like care taken with that excellent man, Mr. Ryle, who has not only delivered a great many political speeches, but has written pamphlets on the subject of Church and State? We trust our worthy brother has been nursed with much watchfulness, for he has the political disease very heavily upon him it we may judge from certain of his tracts. He is a fearful instance of a Political Churchman. We believe the High Church party consider him to be a Dissenter, and we rejoice to believe that they are pretty near the mark, judging the good man doctrinally; and if they are right in their views Mr. Ryle is a political Dissenter himself, only he is out of his proper place. Will some of his friends remind him of his danger? And will they at the same time take note, that for every word upon politics spoken by us, pious churchmen can be found who have uttered ten or a hundred. In them it seems to be commendable, and in us censurable: how is this?
    To the spiritual Churchman we would say:—Take the eighteen volumes of the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, and see if you can find eighteen pages of matter which even look towards politics; nay, more, see if there be one solitary sentence concerning politics, which did not, to the preacher's mind, appear to arise out of his text, or to flow from the natural run of his subject. The abstinence of the preacher from such themes would be eminently praiseworthy, if it were not possibly censurable; for he may have neglected a distasteful duty.
    The truth is that many of us are loath to touch politics at all, and would never do so if we were not driven to it. Our life-theme is the gospel, and to deal with the sins of the State is our "strange work," which we only enter upon under the solemn constraints of duty. To see Popery made the national religion has aroused the gentlest among us. An evangelical church, imposed upon us by the State, was a grievance and a wrong, but to force a shamelessly Ritualistic Establishment upon us as the national religion is a tyranny which no Englishman ought to bear. Is an Anglican priest to swing his censer in our faces in the name of the nation? Are the idols and breaden deities of Ritualism to be held up before us, with this exclamation, "These be thy gods, O England!" The case is so, and we protest for we are Protestants—we will not tamely endure it for we worship the living God. We will go on with our spiritual duties quietly enough if those in power will deal out equal measure to all religions. We shall be delighted to have no more grounds of appeal to public justice, and no more reasons for difference with our fellow Christians. If we are political, give us our rights and we shall be so no more. If our spirituality be precious to our antagonists, let them deliver us from the temptation which puts it in peril.
    For a Christian minister to be an active partisan of Whigs or Tories, busy in canvassing, and eloquent at public meetings for rival factions, would be of ill repute. For the Christian to forget his heavenly citizenship, and occupy himself about the objects of place-hunters, would be degrading to his high calling: but there are points of inevitable contact between the higher and the lower spheres, points where politics persist in coming into collision with our faith, and there we shall be traitors both to heaven and earth if we consult our comfort by slinking into the rear. Till religion in England is entirely free from State patronage and control, till the Anglican Papacy ceases to be called the national religion, till every man of every Faith shall be equal before the eye of the law as to his religious rights, we cannot, and dare not cease to be political. Because we fear God, and desire his glory, we must be political—it is a part of our piety to be so. When nearest to God in prayer, we pray that his church may neither oppress nor be oppressed; when walking in holiest fellowship with Jesus, we long that he alone may be head of the church, and that she may no more defile herself with the kings of the earth. Let not our opponents mistake us: we dare carry our cause before the throne of God, and habitually do so. Our protests before man are repeated in our prayers to God. Our deepest religious emotions are aroused by the struggle forced upon us. We will not say that Nonconformists who are not abused as political Dissenters are not pious, but we will say that, if we shirked the work which makes us political, we should prove ourselves traitors to the Lord our God. The curse of Meroz would fall upon us if we came not up to the help of the Lord in this the day of battle. The history of the nation, and the destiny of millions, may depend upon the faithfulness of Nonconformists at this hour, and our persuasion is that the day will come when it shall be fame rather than dishonor to have been reckoned—A POLITICAL DISSENTER.

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