The Decline of Religion
The following is a condensed version of a letter written addressed to the Georgia Baptist Association by Rev Wm. T. Brantly in 1822:
The low state of vital piety among us; the smallness of the numbers joining themselves to our churches; the increase of error and schism; the disappearance of good signs, and the appearance of bad ones, are some of the facts to which we have chosen…..When too many are turning from the ways of God, and a cold lethargy possesses the hearts of those who ought to be most forward in religion; when many profess to follow in the Saviour become impatient of his doctrines and precepts , and do not like to have the whole truth told them; when a worldly cancer lies corroding the very life of piety and godliness and eats up every thing noble and disinterested; and when a morbid indifference to such a state is found to prevail, it is then surely time for the watchman to rise from his treacherous calm, and sound an alarm in God’s holy mountain.
…we proceed to make some remarks upon the causes of decline in religion.
- Through neglect of the word of God. The truths of Scripture are the only proper furniture for the Christian’s heart, and the food which gives him strength and health ; and though we admit that a critical knowledge of the whole Bible is not necessary to salvation, yet we must assert that a ready acquaintance with its leading truths is a matter essential to the growth of religion in the heart. It is not to be expected that every believer will have time to read elaborate commentaries on the word of truth; but every believer must be able to give a commentary from his own heart upon the contents of that word.
- We find another cause of decline among professors of religion, in their not properly improving their baptism. We deservedly lay much stress on baptism as a great and holy rite. To preserve this ordinance in its simple, apostolic purity, we have boldly encountered the sneers of the world, and the censures of many other religious denominations. We have strenuously maintained that the great Protestant Reformation was incomplete, until the subject and the mode of baptism should be restored to its primitive simplicity and order….as an institution it teaches…the origin and destination of the Christian. It introduces him to the church militant, lays the doctrine of Christ near his heart, honors him with membership in the Society of those who take Jesus for their guide and pattern, and stands as an everlasting memorial of his dedication to God. The believer who daily remembers his baptism and all the sacred considerations which it involves, can hardly fail to surrender himself by a daily devotion to Him who loved him and gave himself for him. But how often are the dreadful and holy obligations of baptism forgotten! How often does the soul which has been winged for an immortal flight, to fly at infinite glories, come down and grovel in the dust!
- The abuse or neglect of the Lord’s Supper may be regarded as another cause of decay in religion. How often have we been grieved when the sacred symbols of the Saviour’s body and blood were offered, to see many require themselves to be passed by, giving the significant shake of the head, and thus in appearance at least, rejecting Christ. Ah, we have thought, is this your kindness to the friend of sinners? Is this the way in which you requite Jesus for all his pains in your behalf? …..Many think they do service to the cause, and mend the matter of their own unworthiness, when they refuse the offered emblems. But let them once for all remember, that if they reject the appointed figures of the Saviour; to be consistent, they should also reject Christ himself and abjure the Christian profession.
- The abuse of the Sabbath is another evil which spreads a dump upon religion, and chills the life of piety. May find a pretext for disregarding the Lord’s Day, in declaiming against Sunday-religion. We have generally remarked, that those who made it their duty to have no more religion on Sabbath than on any other day, seldom had much at any time…. It has never yet happened that the neglect of the Lord’s Day and a prosperous state of religion existed together, at one and the same time time; but it has uniformly happened that where coldness and indifference stretched out their deadly shade over the withering interests of piety, the Lord’s day has been disregarded and the opportunities of this holy season misapplied.
- The slender and incompetent support given to the ministers of religion is not the least obstacle to its happy progress. And here, dear brethren, we will not confine ourselves to general remarks; for we may safely leave other denominations of Christians to make their own arrangements on this subject; but we will address all who feel, or ought to feel, for the healthful state of religion among Baptists….We have told you once and again, and now tell you even weeping, that you could not adopt a more ready way to stifle the spirit of godliness in your hearts, in your families, and in your churches, than by withholding needful support from those who minister in holy things. Is every other kind of service which you receive thought to be worth something , the ministry only excepted? Shall every debt be paid, that only excepted which you owe to God, and his sanctuary? Shall the servant of Christ come to you month after month, and year after year, leaving his wife and children with a scanty subsistence at home, encouraging fatigue, loss of rest and painful privations, to deliver his message to you, and after all scarcely receive enough from you to clothe himself decently? Brethren, you cannot bring a solid objection to the doing of that which God commands you to do, the message which the preacher delivers contains his warrant for demanding support, not as charity, but as a just and undeniable right.
- Finally, we advert to the indulgence of a worldly spirit as a most dangerous and prevalent cause of decline in religion. We know of nothing by which Christians are sooner corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ than the spirit of the world. It is an enemy so insidious that its approaches are seldom perceived, until it has taken possession of the soul. There is operates with an influence destructive to prayer, to charity, to brotherly kindness, to liberal sacrifices and generous feelings. There it remains hardening the heart against all the calls of duty and the labors of love, producing much care and anxiety about temporal things, and a dreadful indifference to things eternal.
The full letter can be found in A History of the Georgia Baptist Association by Jesse Mercer, pages 256-272