Joseph Lathrop (1731-1820) graduated from Yale in 1754. He was ordained as pastor of the Congregational church in West Springfield in 1756 - a church he pastored for over sixty years until his retirement in 1818. This sermon was preached by Lathrop in 1802 at a meeting of the Hampshire Missionary Society.
Preached to the
HAMPSHIRE MISSIONARY SOCIETY,
The Fourth Tuesday in August – 1802,
By Rev. JOSEPH LATHROP, D.D.
Pastor of the first Church in West-Springfield.
ACTS, XVIII, 9, 10, 11.
The spake the Lord to Paul in the night by a vision; Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace; for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city. And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of
God among them.
Our Lord, after his resurrection, commissioned his apostles to go forth and preach his Gospel among all nations. In the execution of their commission, they be agreement took several departments, and were ready occasionally to assist, but careful not to interfere with one another. The district assigned to Paul included Achaia, the capital of which was Corinth. In this city dwelt a number of Jews, for whose sake he, on the Sabbath, preached in their synagogue. But the violent opposition which they made to him, cast him into such discouragement, that he contemplated a removal to some other place, where he might preach with greater safety and better success. This seems to have been the occasion of the vision, just now related, which directed his father continuance in that city.
Some observations pertinent to the occasion, on which we are assembled, will be suggested by this vision.
I. We may here naturally observe, that the apostles, in the publication of the Gospels, had much opposition to contend with.
The Gospel is so rational and benevolent a scheme, so perfectly adapted to the condition of fallen men, and so calculated to render them virtuous and happy, that we might justly expect, it would be most cordially received, wherever it was proposed. But the event has often been the reverse. By many it is treated with indifference – by some, with enmity.
The opposition to it arises, in general, from the depravity of the human mind. Hence the apostle warns those, to whom it comes, to ‘beware, lest there be in any of them an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.’
Some opposed the doctrine of the apostles, because it contradicted the sentiments in which they had been educated. A religion which subverted their accustomed forms of worship, and exposed the absurdity of their ancient superstition, they viewed as a dangerous innovation, and rejected without enquiry.
Some, who had made gain by the credulity of the people, finding that, where the gospel prevailed, the hopes of their gain were gone, opposed the preachers of it on this ground.
But the most bitter and implacable enemies, which the apostles met with, were Jews. In most of the persecutions raised against them, Jews were the first movers and principal actors. Their opposition arose, in a great measure, from political motives. They had long been in expectation of the Messiah foretold by the prophets. And applying to an imaginary temporal kingdom the grand descriptions which the prophets had given of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, they persuaded themselves, that, when he came, they should not only be liberated from the oppressions of the Romans, but exalted to dominion over all nations of the earth. The apostles told them, that the promised Messiah had already come, had suffered death at Jerusalem, had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven – that his kingdom consisted in the subjection of men’s hearts to his religion, and his conquest over the Gentiles was the spread and influence of his religion among them. These doctrines, subversive of their proud hopes, excited among them a violent opposition.
The apostles, in their preaching, never meddled with civil government farther than religion was connected with it. They taught the virtues, which are essential to the happiness of communities, inculcated the relative and social duties, exhorted Christians to pray for, and submit to the ruling powers, and by the practice of all godliness and honesty to secure to themselves peace and quietness among men. But they never entered into the question, Whether Cesar ought to be emperor at Rome, or Herod king in Judea, or whether the Roman government ought to be exercised over Jews. Had they taken a decided part against the claims of the Romans, they would have rendered themselves popular among the Jews. But because they took no part in the political controversy of the day, they became obnoxious to the zealots among their countrymen.
In all ages, when idolatry or infidel has much prevailed, if the spirit of political parties ahs, at the same time, run high, the teachers of religion, faithfully discharging their duty, and honestly inculcating the necessity of religion to social happiness, have been reviled, as interesting themselves in politics. So it was in the time of our Saviour and his apostles; and so it was in all the reigns of the idolatrous kings of Israel. For infidels have generally rejected the idea, that religion is necessary to the peace and happiness of society.
The great object of religion is to prepare men for, and bring them to the happiness of immortality: And where it has its proper influence; it also promotes their happiness in all the relations of the present life. ‘Godliness has the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.’ But if we make religion merely an instrument of temporal designs, supposing that gain is godliness, all our religion is vain. I proceed,
II. To take notice of the charge given to the apostle; ‘Be not afraid, speak, hold not thy peace.’ In obedience to this command, he continued in Corinth, teaching the word of God.
They who speak, are to speak as the oracles of God. They are to speak the word fully, keeping back nothing which is profitable – to speak it plainly, commending themselves to every man’s conscience – to speak it boldly, as men who believe its truth, and feel its importance – to speak it with constancy and perseverance, trusting in the sufficiency of divine grace. They are not to be discouraged in, or diverted from their work by malicious slander and contradiction, or by the small appearance of success, but to discharge their duty with fidelity, leaving the issue with God.
We cannot judge with accuracy concerning the success of our ministry. The word preached, if it have not a visible effect in reclaiming the openly immoral, may have a silent influence on youthful and tender minds in guarding them against the corruption of the world, and in gently forming them to the love and choice of religion. FI its effect be not general, it may be happy in particular instances. Some, who receive from it no present benefit, may hereafter feel its transforming power. A good work begun may be sometime in progress, before it becomes apparent to the world. It is by continuing in our doctrine, that we save those who hear us. This leads us,
III. To consider the encouragement, which Christ gives to Paul; I am with thee.
This is a renewal of the promise before made to ministers in general; ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the world.’ The promise belongs peculiarly to those who are faithful and preserving in the work of Christ. It is preceded by a charge; ‘Teach men to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you.’ In the same manner it is made to Paul: ‘Be not afraid, speak, hold not they peace, for I am with thee.’ Had Paul deserted Christ’s cause, he would have forfeited the benefit of the promise.
This was a promise of personal protection. Christ forewarned his disciples, that they should suffer reproach and persecution for his sake; But he assured them, that while he employed them in his service, he would watch over and defend them: and when he dismissed them, he would graciously reward them. – During their ministry, they experienced his care in delivering them form dangers, supporting them in trials, and overruling the most discouraging appearances to the eventual advancement of the truth. Paul says to the Philippians, among whom, in a particular instance, he had been shamefully entreated. ‘The things which happened to me, have fallen our rather to the furtherance of the Gospel. Many of the brethren, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word of God.’
This promise to Paul may also intend, that he should receive a competent support. In this view it was remarkably verified. From the Corinthians, indeed, he met not the attention, which, from a people so numerous and opulent, might justly have been expected. They contributed liberally to the false teachers, who came to detach them form the order of the Gospel, and to disaffect them to one another. But Paul, who was doing them service, suffered want and he might, for them, have starved in his mission. Other churches, however, contributed to his relief. That which was wanting to him the brethren have Macedonia supplied, so that he could say, ‘I have all thing and abound.’ The Christians in Macedonia, especially in Philippi, did not image, that they fully discharged their duty by supporting the Gospel among themselves only: They felt an obligation to aid its diffusion and success among others. As they believed it to be true and important they wished it might prevail everywhere. Paul was now a missionary in Corinth, among a people wealthy, indeed, but unhappily divided in sentiment by the influence of sectaries among them, and consequently not well disposed toward him. The Christians therefore in Philippi, unwilling that his mission should fail, contributed largely to his support, while he was there.
Christians, who enjoy and value the Gospel, will not think, that the support of it among themselves is all, which they have to do: They will consider the unhappy case of many, who are destitute of it, or not in a condition to maintain it, or thro’ indifference will not enquire after it. It was not the poverty, but the negligence of the people in Corinth, which induced the Christians in Philippi to send once and again to the support of a missionary among them. The Corinthians were just emerging from heathenism, and the Philippians, who were in Christ before them, would encourage the work now hopefully begun among them.
This promise of Christ may farther import, that he would strengthen and succeed the apostle in his labors. Paul felt his own weakness; but, having received this promise from Christ. ‘My grace is sufficient for thee;’ he could say, ‘When I am weak, then I am strong: I will glory in infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.’ Discouraged by opposition in Corinth, he mediated a removal; but the gracious declaration of Christ, ‘I am with thee,’ dispelled his fears. Ministers, conscious of their fidelity, may apply this promise. Where the word is preached in its purity, and heard with attention, we may believe, that Christ is present by his spirit. – Where he sends his Gospel, he sends his spirit with it; nor will he take away his spirit, as long as his Gospel is there retained. When it is put away by direct opposition, or ceases by general neglect then the Spirit retired. – We may observe farther;
IV. Christ here assigns a special reason, why Paul should continue preaching in Corinth. I have much people in this city.
As Jesus is Lord of nature, and head over all things to the church, all men are his people. A reason, then, for Paul’s continuance in Corinth might be, because it was a populous city. It was the capital of Achaia, the seat of government, a place of public resort. If a church should be collected and established here, the Gospel would from hence spread far around and reach to distant parts.
The apostles, in their missionary travels, preached occasionally, as they found people disposed to hear them, whether the assembly were great or small; but they usually made their stand in the center of noted cities, not in the skirts of obscure villages. For this conduct there were two very obvious reasons: one was, because in these large cities there would be more people to hear them, and more good might be done with the same labor: and another was, because in those places they would meet with men of competent knowledge and ability to examine the evidence, and judge of the truth of the Gospel; and they would thus prevent, or silence ever insinuation, that the Gospel made its way by the ignorance and credulity of the rude and uninstructed multitude. They preached in places the most celebrated for learning; in Jerusalem and Cesarea, the seats of Jewish erudition; and in Corinth, Ephesus, Athens, and Rome, where the arts and sciences were publicly professed, and diligently studied. They preached in schools of philosophers, as well as in synagogues of the Jews. They shewed a confidence in the goodness of their cause; and they were able to support it by arguments, which all their adversaries could not gainsay nor resist.
When Christ says, ‘I have much people in this city,’ he may intend, that amidst all the opposition made to his Gospel, many had embraced it. In this preceding verses, it is said, ‘Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his house.’ And many of the Corinthians hearing, believed and were baptized. It many had already been here converted to the faith under Paul’s ministry, there was reason to hope for other conversions. And it was not a time to remove, when so much good had been done, and there was a prospect of doing more. If his first entrance among a people in unbelief had been attended with some good effects, his continued labors might be followed with happier consequences. The work was now in progress, and there would be many to cooperate with him.
But the words may rather be understood, as purporting Paul’s future success in Corinth. As Christ calls those his sheep, Who should afterward come into his fold, so he may here, by anticipation call those his people, who should believe in him thro’ Paul’s ministry. ‘Hold not thy peace, for here are many, who are disposed to hear my Gospel, and who, having an opportunity to hear, will receive and obey it.’
When God is about to accomplish any great work of grace among a people, he sends his Gospel to them by the hands of his minsters. How far he may act by the immediate energy of his Spirit in some individuals among those heathens, who are not within the reach of the Gospel, we pretend not to say. But there never has been any general reformation among heathens and idolaters without human agents preaching to them the word of salvation. ‘How shall they believe in him, of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?’ Before, where the Gospel is attainable, no remarkable reformations are effected without it. In the times of the apostles, there were no nations, or bodies of people reclaimed from vice or superstition by the energy of their own reason and reflection, or by the lectures of philosophers. Nor was supernatural inspiration ever employed in such a manner, as to supersede human agency. Whatever was done in reforming mankind, was done by means of a preached Gospel. God sometimes by extraordinary measures brought the Gospel to those who were ignorant of it; but he never by immediate inspiration communicated to them the things which they might learn by the Gospel. By a vision he directed Cornelius to send for Peter; and by a vision eh commanded Peter to go and preach to Cornelius. But Cornelius and his friends and neighbors never learned the way of salvation thro’ Christ, until Peter came to them, nor did the Holy Ghost fall on them, before they heard Peter preach. Philip was by the spirit ordered to go and instruct the Ethiopian Eunuch; and this Ethiopian, having been instructed by the evangelist, might probably carry the Gospel to his countrymen. But the Ethiopians never had the Gospel communicated to them by immediate inspiration. God, if he pleased, could have inspired the people of Corinth, Galatia, and Philippi with the knowledge of the truth, as easily as have inspired the apostles. But he never takes extraordinary methods of communication, where ordinary means are sufficient. In the beginning of the Gospel, he furnished a competent number of men to be teachers of others, and wherever it was his will, at that time, to send the Gospel, some of these teachers must go and carry it. God is not lavish of inspiration. In this way he does only what is necessary, and what cannot be done in the ordinary way. His moral government is uniform. It is conducted on the same general principle snow, as it was formerly. I fever the Gospel spreads among those who are ignorant of it, or succeeds among those who are indifferent to it, human agency will certainly be employed in the work.
V. Another observation, which presents itself to us, respects Paul’s continuance in Corinth. He preached there a year and an half. And when he removed, Apollos succeeded him, and watered the seed there sown. The seed of the word, like other seed, must not only be sown, but cultivated, that it may bring forth fruit to perfection.
The primitive missionaries, when they found encouraging reception in any considerable town or city, continued there preaching the Gospel, until they were called away to publish it in some other place. And as soon as they had collected a church, they ordained a pastor who should take the stated oversight of it. The apostolic missionaries did not content themselves with merely itinerant, or fugitive preaching: They aimed to tarry in the same place long enough to lay the ground work of a religious society; and when they withdrew from it, they continued it to the care of some other, and usually of some younger minister, who might successfully prosecute the work begun, but was not equally capable of beginning such a work. It was not then, nor is it now, agreeable to the will of Christ, that societies of Christians should remain destitute of a fixed pastor, and depend on transient supplies: Every church is to have her own minister, who shall statedly [regularly] dispense to her the word and ordinances of Christ. – The object of present missionaries should be the same, as was that of the primitive ones – not merely to scatter the seed of the word casually, as they run thro’ the wilderness, but to open and prepare fields, where the seed sown may be brought to maturity under the care of succeeding laborers.
Our observations on this vision of Jesus to his apostle will easily apply themselves to the members and friends of the HAMPSHIRE MISSIONARY SOCIETY, many of whom are now convened in this house.
1. We clearly see, that the institution of this society for the spreading and promoting of Christian knowledge and practice among our new settlements and the aboriginal tribes, is authorized by apostolic example. The Gospel was first spread among heathens by the labors of missionaries. The apostles, to whom it was committed, sent forth some of their number to propagate it among ignorant nations; and they, who, under the ministry of the apostles, first embraced it, felt an obligation to aid them in other missions. The commission, which Christ gave it to his apostles was, to teach all nations. The field was immense, and they went everywhere preaching the word. The views of this society are confined to our own land. But here the field is large. Within the compass of our knowledge or information, there are multitudes in a state of heathenism, or in a state little better. They have heard of the Gospel; but are indifferent to it, and probably will not seek it, nor ever have it, unless it be gratuitously carried to them. And surely the duty of conveying it, lies with us who enjoy it. If there was among them a raging sickness, which, from year to year, carried them off by thousands; and we possessed a known and efficacious remedy, humanity would dictate, that we should be at some expense to send able physicians among them. Their present condition is far more dangerous – our present call is far more urgent.
We hope, that, in a little time, we shall be able to send instructors and preachers among the natives of the land: At present, as our means are small, we are directing our attention chiefly to our new settlements. – These plainly need our assistance. Before the revolution, when the savages were roaming in the wilderness, new settlements were formed with caution; emigrants moved in collected numbers; they carried with them habits of religious order; and they were soon in a condition to enjoy the stated ministrations of the Gospel. Now a vast territory is opened at once; the terrors of the wilderness have ceased; a spirit of emigration and enterprise has seized multitudes; settlements are forming every where, and many of them must increase but slowly; planters meet on the same ground with a diversity of habits and opinions; foreigners and infidels, men of loose principles, corrupt morals and disorganizing sentiments mingle with them; hence it must be a long time before many of these settlements will be able, and longer before some of them will be disposed to obtain a stated ministry. And unless some charitable means be applied, what shall hinder, but that, in a few generations, a great part of this fine growing country will be a region of moral darkness and horror?
2. Our subject calls on all the friends of religion to afford their aid, according to their ability, in promoting the object of this society, which is the spread of the Gospel among the heathens, and in our infant settlements.
It will naturally be expected, that the ministers of the Gospel take a distinguished part in a work of this kind; but without the concurrence of their Christian brethren, they can do but little. They hope to do their part; and greatly will they be animated, when they are addressed by all around them, in the language of the Levites to Ezra; ‘Arise, for this matter belongeth to you: We also will be with you; be of good courage and do it.’ When Paul was a missionary, the believers in Macedonia, sent once and again to his support. They repeated their contributions in aid of his pious work. We must do likewise in aid of the work which we have begun. Much, for the time has already been done. Our expectations have been fully answered; yea, far exceeded. But as we have no considerable funds, we must still principally depend on continued charity. If this should cease, the institution must soon sail.
A work of this kind requires the concurrence of numbers. A few individuals are not competent to it. If the time is come, when we see many engaged in it, we are called to cooperate with them. We have probably, in years past, felt a benevolent concern for our unhappy fellow mortals; but we have attempted nothing, because by ourselves we could do nothing. If now we see others acting in a work, which we have long had at heart, we can lend our aid with a hope, that it will not be in vain.
In the apostolic times, whenever God was about to send his Gospel to a particular place, he excited the hearts of some of the apostles and preachers to carry it thither, and moved the hearts of Christians to assist them. Paul felt a pressure of spirit to preach Christ in Corinth. His spirit was stirred in him to proclaim the Gospel in Athens. Apollos was minded to go and preach in Achaia. Such excitements were indications, that there was much good to be done. When God has a great work in design, he stirs up the hearts of proper agents to engage in it. From this consideration we may derive a pleasing hope, that the present extensive and fervent zeal among ministers and private Christians in Europe and America to spread the Gospel among those who are in heathenism, or in a state threatening a relapse into heathenism, is a token that God has some gracious work now to be accomplished in favor of those unhappy mortals.
We often pray for the conversion of heathens, and for the union of scattered, and the supply of destitute Christians. Are we sincere in our prayers? We shall then act agreeable to them. If God demands human means in works of this kind, let us apply the means in our power, and be workers together with God. If all which we intend by our prayers is, that God should work be inspiration or miracles, we then ask him to step aside form his usual method of working. And why? To save us a little expense: But an expense of what? Of a little of that substance, which God has put into our hands to be used for his glory and for the benefit of mankind. Can we see a better use to be made o fit? We think, every man, who loves the Gospel, will for his own benefit do his part to support it in his vicinity. If a man should leave his share of the common support to fall on his neighbor, we should conclude, the world reigned in his heart, and religion had no place there. Now if we really love the Gospel, we love it for others, as well as for ourselves. Religion in the heart is not selfish and monopolizing; but benevolent and communicative. The true spirit of religion will excite us to promote its general influence.
As God, for several years past, has poured his blessings upon us with unusual bounty, we are under peculiar obligations now to honor him with our substance and with the fruits of our increase. Whatever we apply to the advancement of religion, is given to God. And a a little given with a pious intention, may procure a rich reward. The Gospel is most likely to operate in our own hears, when they are opened to contribute of our substance for its spread among others. The natural feed will never flourish in a soil overgrown with thorns; no more will the seed of the word become fruitful in hears which are filled with the cares of the world and the deceitful influence of riches.
If God ahs much people among those who are scattered in the wilderness, our pious and charitable labors to collect them into his church, will bring on us the blessing of souls ready to perish. And in such a blessing, who would not wish for a share?
The missionaries employed by older societies render favorable accounts of their success. Their accounts warrant our present exertions, and justify our future hopes.
3. Our preceding observation suggest some pertinent thoughts relative to the manner, in which our missionary business should be conducted.
The apostles did not send new converts, and young, inexperienced preachers on mission among heathens; but when themselves, or sent some of their own number. Young preachers they might sometimes take with them as assistances; but these they chiefly employed in supplying churches which were already formed. The Trustees of this society have, in their present, which are their first missions, aimed to imitate the apostolic example. As there may be occasion to administer ordinances, erect new churches, and now and then to ordain elders, it is expedient, that ordained ministers, when they can be obtained, should be employed, in preference to candidates, upon these missions. The gravity of age, and the wisdom of experience will give weight to their influence. And it may be supposed, that ordinarily, they will be more judicious in the selection, and more discreet in the treatment of subjects, than youthful preachers. The young man, in the course of his preparatory studies, pays particular attention to certain abstruse and controverted points in divinity. He commences preacher, firm in the belief, and warm with the supposed importance of this, or that side of the altercated questions. And these he too often makes the subjects of discussion among people, who more need, and rather wish to hear the great duties and essential doctrines of religion. The minister of years and experience, as he grows more wise, becomes more candid in matters of controversy; and as he increased in knowledge, he more justly discriminates between things, which differ in importance; and his preaching, of course, takes a more evangelical, practical, and experimental turn.
We are farther taught, that the labors of missionaries should be more local, and less transient, than they have sometimes been. The apostolic missions were usually, for a time, stationary in the same place.
Our missions are designed, not to be substitutes for, but introductions to a settled ministry. They are to be a voice crying in the wilderness. ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths strait.’ They are intended to collect scattered people into religious societies, form them to habits or order, lead them to an attendance on Gospel institutions, diffuse among them a spirit of candor, condescension and peace, and assist their preparation for, and union in the settlement of a stated ministry. This purpose can but be effected, not by cursory, but by stationary preaching. A transient sermon may have a useful influence on some particular persons; but to produce a state of union and order more permanent means must be applied.
The important object of our missionary society has been states, and some means for the attainment of it have been suggested. With this grand object in view let us strive together for its advancement, that our hearts may be refreshed, and that from time to time we may meet together with joy, hearing of the spread and power of the Gospel among our perishing fellow mortals.
The general prevalence of religion exhibits a beautiful and lovely scene. What can be more pleasing than to behold mankind acting under the influence of the Gospel, paying honor to God by an attendance of his worship, living together in harmony and peace, seeking each the happiness of others, uniting to promote the common salvation, rising superior to worldly influence, and walking along, hand in hand, in the part, which leads up the kingdom of glory?
Such a state is refreshing to a benevolent mind, as it gives an idea of general happiness.
When we look around on our guilty, dying race, how affecting the thought that these are all hastening down to the grave; and many, alas! many treading the broad road to eternal destruction? But how agreeable is the scene reversed, when we can view them as subjects of God’s grace, heirs of heavenly glory, children of immortality, passing from this probationary world to a world of everlasting peace and joy?
Such a state of religion is refreshing, as it gives hope for succeeding generations. When we see religion declining, ignorance increasing, errors spreading, and wickedness abounding, we tremble for posterity, who, coming forward amidst such a corrupt and distempered race, will catch the baleful infection, and transmit it, with tenfold malignity to those who shall follow. How melancholy the prospect, when we contemplate a train of generations to be born amidst licentiousness, grow up in corruption, pass off in guilty, and perish in their sins? But how delightful the thought, that the present generation, acting under the influence of truth, will train up their children in the fear of god and the nurture of the Gospel; that these will transmit to their successors the pious sentiments received from their fathers; that thus the knowledge of religion and the means of salvation, with the attendant blessing of God, conveyed from age to age, will continue to distant generations? What a mighty sum of happiness will be the result of such a beginning? What a glorious prospect such a work opens to our view?
Be entreated, brethren, for the Lord Jesus sake, and for the love of the spirit, that you strive together in your labors, charities and prayers for the spread and success of the Gospel, especially among those, who principally claim the attention of our society. Thus may Christ be glorified in them, and they in him, according to the grace of God and our Lord Jesus Christ. To him be dominion forever. Amen.