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In giving to the English public the following discourses on the History of the Primitive Church, I have been actuated neither by the eloquence of the language, nor the novelty of the views contained in them, but simply by the lively and practical piety which they display, and the necessity which seems to have arisen in these days for exhortations of the kind. At a time when German theology has assumed so questionable a character, and has become so justly suspected in a country where religious speculation has always been confined within modest bounds, I should have hesitated at introducing a new work from thence, unless I were fully convinced of the general scriptural integrity of its views. In this case, however, the difficulty has been entirely removed by the fact, that these Sermons have for their groundwork Dr Neander's celebrated History of the Early Church, a work known in this country through the admirable version of it by the Reverend Henry Rose, whose preface bears a handsome testimony to its general orthodoxy, and which was pronounced by his brother, the late Christian advocate, to be the most truly Christian history of the church ever yet published. I trust this will be a guarantee sufficient for the general rectitude of the views here taken, and shall therefore leave it to the Christian charity of the reader, to excuse any differences from his own opinion in those minor points, where such differences may fairly be allowed.
That the necessities of our times require that frequent appeals should be made to the simplicity of primitive Christian piety, is a point that, I think, will scarcely be questioned. It needs no querulous or discontented spirit to see a wide difference between the thoughts and views of this age upon religious subjects, and those of the primitive church. Whatever we may have gained in point of refinement and knowledge, we have lost much of that holy earnestness and simple childlike trust, whereby, in former times, the whole life, and not, as now, mere portions of it, was dedicated to God's honour and service. The almost inevitable accumulation of property into few hands, the daily increasing distance between the ranks of rich and poor, the love of empty display, and the consequent heavy demands of the world upon our attention, have left little time, and, perhaps, less inclination, for nobler pursuits and duties. The rich seem to have forgotten that they are but the stewards of the wealth that God has given them ; the poor no longer remember that, “ their's is the kingdom of heaven;" all classes seem to act practically as if religious duties were a heavy and burdensome task, instead of a grateful service. What the good Archbishop Leighton said of his times is but too true of ours, “ The noises of coach-wheels, of their pleasures, and of their great affairs, so fill their ears, that the still voice, in which God is, cannot be heard.” The pleasant breezes of prosperity have fanned God's church to sleep, and there needs something to awaken it. In these days of “ soft clothing,” we need to hear more of the desert and the sackcloth, the locusts and the wild honey ; we need, again, the voice of one crying in the wilderness to awake us from our sleep of death. Religion has become, in most cases, a matter so entirely distinct from actual life, that we have set apart fixed times and seasons, and those rare and with long intervals, for thinking on the high concerns of another life; and so convinced are we of the propriety of our conduct, that if the preacher ventures to make further demands on our time, if, in God's name, he asks us for our whole heart, we resent his conduct as an unwarranted and unreasonable encroachment upon the duties of active life. The early Christians succeeded in combining their duties to God with those which they owed to man; every thing they did was done in the Lord. In such times, therefore, and under such influences, we surely cannot hear too often of the strict severity, the unwearied watchfulness, the self-sacrificing charity of those first converts. They were, it is true, but men; and, as men, they had their faults, and those, too, of no inconsiderable magninitude ; but they were men over whom the shadow of apostles and apostolic men had passed; they had caught the spirit of Christianity almost fresh from the lips of the Saviour; they had realised what, to most of us, is still a mystery, how we should live, yet so as it should not be we, but Christ living in us. To them, no day but was the Lord's day, no place but was the Lord's house, no minute but was the appointed time, the day of salvation. When the clouds of persecution, disease, or poverty, hung heavily over their fellows, it needed not, as unhappily is the case so often now, the pathetic eloquence of a favourite preacher to plead the cause of the poor; it needed no reiterated entreaties to make them minister to the necessities of their bre
thren. They felt how Christ had loved them, and what obligation was thereby placed upon them to love their fellow sinners, and they hastened to contribute according as each had power. The world has thrown its dust into our eyes, and we do not see the wide and comprehensive duties of our religion as Christians once did. Such sermons, then, as these, which recall the world from its softness and apathy to the contemplation of those more sincere periods of the church's history, when believers were all of one mind, and one soul, full of love and of the Holy Ghost, surely are not out of place; and, I cannot but hope, that such writings may be some of the appointed means in the hand of God by which He will fulfil his promise regarding His church, “ I will bring her into the wilderness, and there I will speak to her heart.”
It would be well, too, if these discourses would lead Christians more to the writings of the earlier fathers of the church, in whom, amid many errors, are yet to be found purer reflections of the true Christian spirit than are generally to be met with in our days. To this end, I would hope, that the sound and practical piety of the quotations interspersed through these Sermons would materially contribute. Men of all parties have too much regarded the writings of the fathers as mere treasurehouses of doctrinal subtleties, and neglected to draw from them the vast stores of vital Christianity which are to be found in them. The extracts here given will, at all events, do their part in dispelling the ignorance which so much prevails concerning the character of the early church, and in leading men to form a juster estimate of its merits and claims on their attention and respect. If they shall contribute in the slightest degree to produce this desirable end, and thus help to restore the reign of genuine Christian love and earnestness among us, they will have amply answered their purpose.