Lyman Abbott, D.D.,
From the North American Review (April 1890)

[This version is abridged.  Click here for the unabridged version.]

DEAR SIR: When the editor of THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW asked me to reply to your two articles recently published in that periodical, entitled "Why Am I an Agnostic?" my first inclination was to decline. . . . Life is too short, life is too serious, to leave room for such spectacular tournaments, whose prize the public awards, not to truth, but to brilliance of rhetoric and readiness of repartee.
It would, indeed, I think, not be difficult to point out some serious errors in your statements, but they are probably not more serious than those into which I should fall were I to endeavor to write of constitutional law, furnished therefor only by a casual reading of the Constitution, and perhaps The Federalist, with no knowledge of the course of judicial interpretation afforded by the decisions of the Supreme Court during the last half-century. I might point out your mistake in supposing that hundreds of crimes were punished with death under the Mosaic statutes, telling you that there were in fact exactly twelve crimes so punished. These were idolatry, witchcraft, blasphemy, fraudulent prophecy, Sabbath-breaking, rebellion against parents, resistance to judicial officers, murder, homicide by negligence, adultery, certain incestuous marriages, kidnapping. When one reflects that [447] there were in that epoch no prisons, and no possibility of providing them, that banishment from the camp during the wanderings in the wilderness was punishment worse than death, and that as late as 1600 A. D., in England, two hundred and sixty-three crimes were capital offences, the Mosaic code does not seem to be extraordinarily harsh or cruel. When one reflects that in the Orient to-day the life of every citizen is at the mercy of an absolute despot, from whose decision there is no appeal, and that under Moses no man could be deprived of life or property except after trial and conviction by his peers, the judicial system which Moses established does not seem by contrast exceptionally barbaric.
I might assure you that you are quite mistaken in supposing that Christians say to the heathen: "You must examine your religion, and not only so, but you must reject it; and unless you do reject it, and, in addition to such rejection, adopt ours, you will be eternally damned." I do not recall the name of a single living teacher in the Christian church who holds any such doctrine. Joseph Cook and Dr. J. L. Withrow have stood in the very forefront of the conservative party in the orthodox church in its recent controversies concerning the future of the heathen, and they have both contended vigorously that an acceptance of Christianity is not essential to salvation; that, on the contrary, myriads of pagans will be found to have entered into eternal life without any knowledge of Christ or his religion. But it would probably be of little use in a public debate to point out these and kindred errors. No man likes to acknowledge publicly that he has been mistaken. The only result would be your reply, perhaps, that a code which punished Sabbath-breaking with death was barbaric, and that, if the acceptance of Christianity is not essential to salvation, it is not legitimate to lay such stress upon its acceptance. Thus the argument would be simply shifted; there would be a new thrust and a new parry, and the fencing would go on as before.
I do not propose, therefore, to enter into any controversy with you; to answer in detail your criticisms on the Bible, which seem to me to grow almost wholly out of a misapprehension of that book, nor your criticisms on theology, which seem to me to grow partly out of your misapprehensions of the theologians and partly out of their misapprehensions of the Bible. But I should like to ask you . . . [448] whether you are quite sure that this object is worthy of one who desires to be and to be known as a lover of his fellow-men. You desire, if I understand the spirit and purport of your writings, to deprive mankind of their faith in God, in Christ, in the Bible. Are you quite sure that this faith is so injurious, so depressing, so dwarfing to human growth, so dangerous to human liberty, so distressing to humanity in its sorrow, so demoralizing to humanity in its moral conflicts, that to take it from them is worthy your eloquence on the platform, and your invective, your satire, and your ridicule on the printed page? Will life and property be safer, will liberty be surer, will homes be sweeter, will life be more joyous and death less terrible, if you succeed, and the life of Christ is forgotten, and the Psalms of David are no more sung, and the Ten Commandments fall into oblivion, and faith in God and hope of immortality are dissipated like pleasant dreams by a rude awakening, and humanity is left without a Father and life without a hope? You remember, perhaps, the testimony to his own experience borne by Professor Clifford, the ablest, most scholarly, most candid, most nobleminded atheist of the century:

        "It cannot be doubted that theistic belief is a comfort and a solace to those who hold it, and that the loss of it is a very painful loss. It cannot be doubted, at least, by many of us in this generation, who either profess it now, or received it in our childhood and have parted from it since, with such searching trouble as only cradle-faiths can cause. We have seen the spring sun shine out of an empty heaven to light up a soulless earth; we have felt with utter loneliness that the Great Companion is dead. Our children, it may be hoped, will know that sorrow only by the reflex light of wondering compassion."  [Footnote: Professor Clifford: "Influence upon Morality of a Decline In Religious Belief." Lectures and Essays, Vol. II., page 217.]

What will it profit your fellow-men if you succeed in giving to them a like experience of orphanage?
Do not misunderstand me. Do not imagine that I wish you to give your countenance to a lie because it is pleasing or appears to be profitable. Or that I even wish you to keep silence while such a lie flourishes before your eyes. By no means. Let us have the truth, cost what it may. Let hearts bleed and feet falter in the march, let courage fail and hope die, let governments perish and communities dissolve into their original elements, rather than live and prosper by lies. If you are sure that there is no God who is the Father of us all; no future life which sheds its light of hope [449] on the sorrowful enigma of the present; no divinity in man tabernacling in the hearts of all who will give it admission, and most of all in the heart of him who, because he gave it free entrance and yielded it absolute loyalty, is preeminently the Son of God; no voice speaking in the voices of men the language of divinity, but in a patois of earth,--if you are sure of this, and are convinced that our brighter hope is a delusion and a snare, you do right to attempt to dispel the illusion and waken us from the dream. So one might well exhaust his skill to awaken from his pleasing lunacy one who was a prince in the asylum ward, but would become a pauper when returned sane to his home. But if I understand you aright, you are not sure. Thus eloquently, in the December number of this REVIEW, you state your conclusions:

"Let us be honest with ourselves. In the presence of countless mysteries; standing beneath the boundless heaven sown thick with constellations; knowing that each grain of sand, each leaf, each blade of grass, asks of every mind the answerless question; knowing that the simplest thing defies solution; feeling that we deal with the superficial and the relative, and that we are forever eluded by the real, the absolute,--let us admit the limitations of our minds, and let us have the courage and the candor to say: We do not know."

You do not call yourself an atheist, but an agnostic. You do not know that there is no God, but you do not know that there is one. Well, let us for the moment grant that we are all agnostics; that we none of us know that there is a God; that we only have faith that there is one. Is it so impossible a faith that loyalty to truth requires its overthrow? Is it so injurious to man that loyalty to love requires its overthrow? I believe, indeed, that our faith in God rests on the surest of all foundations--on a personal acquaintance and fellowship with him. Herbert Spencer can hardly be accused of being subject to the delusions and superstitions of an ignorant and priest-ridden intellect. It is Herbert Spencer who says: "Unlike the ordinary consciousness, the religious consciousness is concerned with what lies beyond the sphere of sense. A brute thinks only of the things which can be touched, seen, heard, tasted, etc., and the like is true of the untaught child, the deaf-mute, and the lowest savage. But the developing man has thoughts about existences which he regards as usually intangible, inaudible, invisible; and yet which he regards as operative upon him." It is in this consciousness of a God who lies beyond the sphere of sense that our faith in God is founded--a faith which in one form or another has characterized [450] the greatest, the profoundest, the most luminous thinkers of all ages; the greatest philosophers like Socrates, the greatest poets like Goethe, the greatest statesmen like Gladstone, the greatest scientists like Isaac Newton. On the one side is this faith of the wisest, the best, the noblest of mankind; on the other--what? This answer: "We do not know." It will hardly be sincerely contended that this faith, so witnessed, is so irrational that one who does not know is bound by his loyalty to truth to attack it.
Is it, then, so injurious to mankind that loyalty to humanity requires him to attack it?
Is this faith in a Father of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named--a Father who understands what is mystery to [451] us, and who out of chaos is evolving a new created world--so deadening to human sensibilities, so discouraging to human endeavor, so dwarfing to human growth, that one who does not know whether it is true or not, should feel himself appointed to overthrow it? Fear hath torment, and I would gladly join forces with you in endeavoring to rid the world of this tormentor. But may it not be that perfect love is more effectual than perfect ignorance to cast out fear?
The mystery of life! Who is not at times oppressed by it? Whose faith does not sometimes fail? Who does not sometimes cry out also, "We do not know"? He who does not see that the whole world groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now, has studied life to little purpose. If the object of life is to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number here and now, it is one long, continuous, unbroken blunder. But love has higher aims than this. It seeks to give character, not happiness. Whether I am happy here or hereafter is a matter of small concern; whether I am true, pure, noble, manly, is the only question worth considering. I ask science to interpret life for me, and it replies, "Life is a struggle for existence; the result is the survival of the fittest." I ask religion, and religion replies, "Life is a battle with temptation; the result is eternal life to the victors." The phrases are different; the answer is the same: struggle--battle; survival--life; fittest--victors. And if you agree with me that character is worth more than condition, life than place, being than happiness, you may possibly also agree with me that, when the end is seen,--that end which is not yet,--we shall see that life was adapted to produce character; that the struggle was adapted to produce the fittest.
If you ask me, Could not omnipotence have created the fittest without the struggle, virtue without battle? I reply, "We do not know." We only know that we can conceive no way in which courage can be produced without danger bravely encountered, nor patience without burdens bravely borne, nor love without self-denial cheerfully endured. And so the faith in a love which puts its children into the battle, binds burdens on their shoulders, offers them the cross, and itself enters the battle, bears the burden, and endures the cross with them, seems to us neither inconsistent with life nor inconceivable by the reason. You do not know. That I can readily understand. But why, since you [482] do not know, should you endeavor to take from humanity a faith and a hope so illuminating and inspiring? That I do not readily understand.
But we are not merely theists--we are Christians: we believe in God; we believe also in Christianity. What is Christianity?
The first century of the Christian era was the darkest which the world has ever seen. Poetry had died in Greece, philosophy in Rome, prophecy in Palestine; in place of Isaiah was Gamaliel; in place of Socrates was Philo. Liberty was bound, gagged, given over to the wild beasts to be devoured. Society was divided into two classes--many paupers and few rich. Public corruption was not even a public disgrace. Gluttony and drunkenness were fine arts, and licentiousness and prostitution a religion. The laborers were slaves; public education there was none; marriage was a partnership dissolvable at the will of either partner. In Palestine, also, decay, though not so complete. Thanks to the system of public education which Moses had founded, there was a parochial school for the children of the peasantry in every village that had a synagogue; thanks to the restrictions which Moses had put about slavery and polygamy, there were few or no slaves in Jewish households, and not a harem in Palestine. And yet even in Palestine the church had fallen under the dominion of a corrupt and infidel priesthood, who were agnostics in their creed, though they were still ritualists in their practice.
At this time there appeared a young man of thirty whose brief life and simple teaching were to revolutionize the world. He never went beyond the bounds of his own little province. He gathered a few hundred of the common peasantry about him, and talked to them of truth, duty, love, God. Most of his teaching was conversational; not more than five or six of what can be called his public discourses have been preserved to us, and these only in fragmentary, imperfect, and sometimes conflicting reports. His message was very simple, and yet the world has not yet become weary of listening to it; and to-day, when a Henry Ward Beecher, a Phillips Brooks, a Dwight L. Moody, quietly ignoring the additions and corruptions of a later scholasticism, goes back to the simple teaching of this Galilean rabbi, throngs gather to hear the teaching, as they did when it was first given on the shores of the Lake of Gennesaret. [453]
This Galilean rabbi told these people that he had come from God to tell them about God; that he was a witness and testified to what he had seen and heard. He told them that the world was not orphaned; that it had a Father in heaven who Ioved his children, cared for them, suffered with them. He told them that all men were brethren; that distinctions between rich and poor, high and low, cultured and ignorant, between Hebrew and Greek, between Jew and pagan, differences of ritual, of creed, of condition, of race, were of no consequence; that the only distinction of consequence was between righteousness and unrighteousness, truth and falsehood, virtue and vice, love and malice. He told them that life was for service; that to be useful was to be great; that to be self-denying was to be happy; that sorrow rightly borne was a blessing, not a bane; that the way to overcome evil was by love and patience, not by force. Moses had told the Jew to love his Jewish neighbor as himself; Jesus told him that the apostate and heretical Samaritan was his neighbor. Moses had forbidden cruel and disproportionate punishments: only maim, he said, the one that maims; kill only the one who has killed. Christ went further. Do not punish sin at all, he said; cure it. Love is better than justice; a penitentiary than a prison; a reformatory than a jail. Resist not evil; do good to them that despitefully use you. Moses had told them that God was justice--too holy to clear the guilty; Jesus told them that God was love--so holy that he would cure the guilty. He treated sin as a disease; God as a physician; life as a hospital. Forgiveness of sin, deliverance from sin, was his mission. He told them that not ignorance, nor wretchedness, nor race, nor even sin separated the soul from God; that the more the soul needed God, the readier was God to give the help of his companionship.
He not only taught these things; he lived them. He cared nothing for wealth; sought not office nor place. Applause was distasteful him; he eschewed it. When men would have shouted his praises, he bade them be still. He was as gentle as a woman, as heroic as a knight. The wrongs of others aroused his wrath; wrongs inflicted on himself aroused only his pity and his love. The church-member who devoured widows' houses and for a pretence made long prayers, he denounced with ringing invectives as a hypocrite; the apostate who betrayed him with a kiss, he bade pathetic farewell to with the appellation of "Friend." In all [454] this he declared that he was simply fulfilling his Father's will, revealing his Father's truth, doing his Father's work, actuated by his Father's spirit, and manifesting his Father's character to men. His whole life and teaching were one continuous indictment of the social and the ecclesiastical order of his time; and the social and ecclesiastical order combined to crush him. But the authorities were compelled to move cautiously because the common people loved him. By the aid of a betrayer they traced him to his retreat. The three trusted disciples who had undertaken to watch, that they might guard against surprise, fell asleep. Jesus disdained to flee and leave them to be arrested, put himself between the police and his own recreant followers, bade the latter escape, surrendered himself, and was led away to death. The shameful story of cruel abuse, the resplendent story of divine suffering love, I need not here recall. His death seemed to have extinguished the last light from the heavens and left the world in the night of an utter despair.
But his disciples did not long despair. In the belief that he had risen from the dead, they rose from a despair that was worse than death. Within thirty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, faith in his resurrection had become the inspiration of the church. With an unprecedented audacity, the followers of Jesus had undertaken to convert the world to this faith, and in that faith to loyalty to their master and his teachings. Their early successes are among the marvels of history. Pagan temples became Christian churches; pagan feast-days Christian festivals. In three centuries the faith of the despised Nazarene had become the recognized religion of the Roman Empire. But the conversion was too sudden to be complete. While the church was converting paganism, paganism was also converting the church. From that day to this the teaching and influence of Jesus Christ have been contending with the paganism which is inherent in us all. The banished gods were rechristened as saints, and came back again. The banished idols were renamed apostles, and remained to be worshipped as before. The polytheistic throng of mediators between deity and man were imported into the church. The doctrine of the brotherhood of man made a struggle for existence in Alexandria, but was no match for the forces of wealth and ambition arrayed against it. The doctrine of the Fatherhood of God was [455] dimmed, if it did not entirely disappear. The old pagan dread of God came back again into human consciousness. Perfect fear cast out love; God became a terror, religion a law, faith a creed, worship a ritual.
Yet the new life could not be destroyed. Every age has produced, now within the church, now without it, protestants against the paganism which masquerades in the robes of Christianity. Christ and his truth are growing clearer in the apprehension, stronger in the heart, of his church. In that church there are, of course, narrowness, intolerance, crueltry [sic.]; that is to say, the church is made up of men and women, and there are narrowness, intolerance, cruelty, in the best of us. But these belong, not to Christianity, but to the paganism with which, in the church as without it, the spirit of Christianity, the spirit of gentleness, generosity, service, self-sacrifice, is contending. These are seen at their worst, not within, but without the church of Christ. Count Tolstoy has shown that in one Russian campaign more lives have been sacrificed to the devouring spirit of ambition than have perished in all the religious wars and persecutions of the Christian church from the beginning of the Christian era to this date. The powers of evil which have made their lair in the very church of God are not yet driven out of it.
We do not pretend to have fully comprehended the teaching of the Master, still less to realize in ourselves his life. Nevertheless, the United States could ill afford to lose the church despite its faults--its too narrow creeds, its artificial scholasticism, its emphasis now on doctrines, now on ritual, its schisms and separations, its bickerings and strifes, its fashion, its pomp, its social exclusiveness, its sometimes aristocratic temper. It does us no harm to have critics, whose keenness of vision is quickened by prejudice, point out these faults to us. Still, despite them, the church is a conservator of civilization, an educator of good-will, an almoner of charity, and the school of a noble, though defective, reverence and faith. It compels men to think of other things than stocks and bonds, lands and houses. It turns their minds toward considerations of justice, mercy, and truth. It calls men to reflect on noble lives; to look for an hour a week on the incomparable life of Jesus Christ, and measure their own lives by his. It ministers comfort at the coffin and courage in the market-place. [456] It is the reservoir from which need draws its assistance.  The festival of the church becomes Hospital Sunday, and swells the treasure of those that minister in unpaid service to the sick and the suffering. It is to the church men look for endowments of asylums, colleges, all benevolent institutions. And it preaches a gospel of peace on earth and good-will toward men, the influence of which is seen in innumerable private rills of personal benevolence. The most stalwart anti-Romantist, in his calmer and more candid moments, can hardly question that, were the Roman Catholic church abolished by instantaneous decree, its priests banished and its churches closed, and the restraining influence of that form of the Christian religion taken away from its adherents, the disaster to American communities would be simply awful in its proportions, if not irretrievable in its results. The church has been and still is a Theseus struggling with the Centaur; it is itself half Theseus, half Centaur. He who desires to slay the Centaur, should be careful to so aim his blow as to help, not wound, Theseus.
The teaching of Christ, the spirit of Christianity, seem to me very simple. They are that duty is love, that life is service, that every man is my brother, that God is the All-Father, and that he is cleansing, purifying, educating, developing, perfecting his children for a more harmonious life to come. We believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, because we believe that he came from God, because in him there was, without dimness or darkness, that light of God some ray of which trembles in the darkest heart and life.  We believe that he is the Saviour of mankind, because we believe that through him mankind is coming to know God, to receive God, to live in and with God, to become sons of God. The Christian spirit is the spirit of loyalty to Christ; making Christianity not merely our creed, but our life; making our own duty love, our own life service, our neighbor our brother, and God our Father, and finding in him the power to live this life of love and service which we believe is endless because it is divine. This faith wrought into the life of society would put an end to its discords; wrought into many a Christian household has made of them types of what all society might become, if it were reorganized on the simple but radical principles of the Sermon on the Mount. It is the comfort of the sorrowing, the strength of the tempted, the peace of the tempest-tossed, the purifier of the sinful, the upholder and [457] perfecter of the unfinished and the immature. If one who does not know whether this faith is true or not attempts to take it from the world, he should consider seriously whether be has something better to bestow in its place.
What I wish I might commend to the candid consideration of those who, like yourself, seem to me to throw away the wheat because it is not wholly winnowed from the chaff, is the Christian faith in the brotherhood of man, faith in the Fatherhood of God, and faith in the forgiveness of sins.
Yours respectfully, LYMAN ABBOTT

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why was Lyman Abbott arguing with Robert Ingersoll?
  2. What type of religious faith was Abbott defending?
  3. What arguments did he make against Ingersoll?
  4. Why did Abbott believe that Christianity was worth defending?

Source: North American Review (April 1890), 446-457. Paragraph numbers have been added, and the pagination from the original appears in brackets.

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