Many city pastors, and some rural ones too, lament the fact that people do not come to listen to them preach. This condition is in marked contrast to the good old New England days, when the whole neighborhood would turn out and listen to sermons four hours long. It is a question whether such intellectual giants as Jonathan Edwards built up such congregations or whether such congregations brought out the best in Jonathan Edwards.
People to-day go to church for a variety of reasons. But the dominant motives that should prevail are those of worship and for instruction. All Christians should attend religious services for worship regardless of the quality of the sermon or the personal attitude of the people toward the minister. The message from the pulpit should be such that it too would attract for its own sake. It is the exceptional city minister that can fill the pews from week to week and from year to year because of the type of message given. The daily papers and the many other agencies for discussion of live topics have become so numerous that the pulpit has lost much of its original importance as an agency for instruction. But in the village and the open country the pulpit still has a large field for service in this respect and thus becomes an especial challenge to the one who wants to develop as a leader of thought. The village minister has an opportunity unique in American life in this respect. Some of the greatest leaders of thought ever produced were the product of the village churches of England and Scotland. There is no reason why the village church of America should not become the seedbed for the best contributions to religious, philosophical, and literary thought of the present day.
It will be impossible to give more than a few illustrations of present needs and opportunities for service in this respect in the smaller communities. One of the first tasks of the church is the introduction of correct thought in regard to religious beliefs. It is almost unbelievable the amount of actual superstition and positively harmful beliefs that prevail under the guise of religion not only in rural but in urban communities. An example of this is the widespread belief in the second coming of Christ at an early date. Educational institutions of national note are continuously laboring to extend this form of belief. The question as to whether Christ will ever come again is one that does not appear to have any immediate social significance other than it may have some influence on conduct as to the method of preparation for his coming. Those who believe in such coming may either believe that all efforts at social improvement now are fruitless, because the ultimate inauguration of the Kingdom will result from the sweeping away of everything that now exists and in the inauguration of a new social order out of the ruins of the old. Or they may believe that the efforts of the churches and other agencies now are preparing the way for such coming, and the inauguration of the Kingdom will be but the next step in an orderly process of social progress. There is reason to believe that many of those who are teaching the second coming are inclined to the former point of view; and wherever they gain a hearing their influence practically nullifies all efforts to enlist their followers in any program of social improvement.
The effect of a belief in an immediate coming of Christ as indicated by present world conditions interpreted in the light of Old and New Testament prophecy is to paralyze all motive for social action. Such action, if this belief is correct, is useless. The devotee is driven to the position of finding his sole religious duty that of getting himself and those in whom he is interested ready to enter the new kingdom through the observance of the personal elements in religious life.
Another belief that in some sections has a limited influence is that of observance of Saturday instead of Sunday as the day set apart by biblical authority as the Sabbath. Without commenting on the rightness or the wrong of the contention, it should be remembered that this belief has resulted in some sections in practically the breakdown of observance of the Sabbath by rural communities, without a corresponding gain in Saturday observance. Community solidarity for either social or religious purposes is thus broken up. From the social point of view this is distinctly unfortunate.
Again, in some sections religion has taken an extreme form of antagonism to anything of a practical type. The extremes to which the emotional expression of religion has gone have been such that these groups have become popularly known as |Holy Rollers.| Wherever this type of religious expression breaks out in a rural community it severely handicaps all efforts at making the church function as an agency for rural progress. The energies of such devotees are so exhausted in their services that they lack the energy, even if they had the inspiration, to link their efforts to any program of community betterment. This group is usually found not only opposing progressive measures in the church but also opposing other progressive activities in the community, such as better schools, road improvement, etc.
In isolated sections of rural America all over the country may be found groups of Latter Day Saints. These groups are not yet of sufficient strength to be of great importance outside of Utah and a few other Western States. But the existence of an organized group anywhere, particularly if it is of a missionary character, is likely to spread and ultimately become a factor of considerable importance. Anyone visiting the Mormon Temple at Salt Lake and reading on the monuments to Joseph and Hiram Smith the testimony in letters of stone to the effect that Joseph discovered the message of the Book of Mormon on gold plates, and that Hiram was the witness thereof, will realize how easy it is to spread almost any belief under the guise of religion if the children are taught such doctrines during their youth.
It will be unnecessary to go through the whole catalogue of beliefs finding expression in the dogma of practically all religious organizations, and in times past dividing the followers of Christianity into denominational groups. The most serious problems of adjustment of religious institutions for community service grow out of these differences in belief on points of dogma.
The solution of the problem of clearing the field of unwholesome and injurious belief lies not in writing polemics against them but in filling the minds of the people with unquestioned truth. As the rural mind is directed to the consideration of topics of vital importance these things that have crept in and disturbed social order and dissipated precious energies in fruitless discussion will disappear through lack of attention. On the other hand, persecution will attract attention to and arouse the fanatical support of them and distract the attention of the group from matters of more vital importance.
In addition to preaching those sermons which keep alive in community consciousness the sense of man's obligations to his Maker, the significance and solemnity of death and those other epochal events in the course of human existence, and the hope given to man of a fuller life through the coming of Christ, the minister has certain great moral ideals that he should instill into the minds of his people.
The matter of honesty in dealing with both the farmer and his neighbors both near and distant has already been mentioned.
The right attitude toward wealth accumulation must also be preached not only for the safety of the rural community but also for the entire nation. By the very nature of the business the vast majority of people living in small communities and on the farms must remain indefinitely people of modest means. The possibilities of large wealth accumulation are limited because the farm must continue to be a small scale industry. It can be improved so as to afford adequate leisure. But farm life does not promise large enjoyment to those of an epicurean turn of mind. The ideal of the farm must be that of producing wealth so that the modest comforts of life may be insured. But the minister must exalt the appreciation of those things that may be obtained without lavish expenditure of money, such as local entertainment produced by the community itself, literature, music, and art; and the simple pleasures that come from democratic association with intimate acquaintances.
It is believed that with all the material progress of this country, it has had to sacrifice many things that are worth far more than the types of enjoyment obtained by slavish imitation of the extremely wealthy leisure class in the cities. The exhortation to preach the values of the simple pleasures possible in smaller communities is not for the purpose of keeping people contented with a lot that cannot be improved, but because it is believed that the smaller communities to-day contain within themselves and their ideals the seed of rejuvenation of all life, and that a greater contribution can be made by rural communities to civilization by adhering to their ideals than by being diverted from them by the money-seeking, materialistic ideals of the urban centers. The best in rural ideals must ultimately become the ideals of the city if we are to avoid the degeneration that will inevitably follow a too materialistic urban civilization.
The pastor should be able to bring to his people from time to time the interpretation of national and world events in terms of their relation to the advance of religious progress. This obligation will require constant and wide reading about the social movements of the time. In the more progressive communities many of the farmers and their families will have access to literature that will enable them to form their own conclusions to a large degree. But not many of them, even though they be college graduates, will have the time to read as widely as they would like on any of the great changes taking place; and they will welcome an intelligent interpretation of these by the one who has the larger opportunities for such service.
Finally, the preacher must be a prophet. He must have caught the vision of tendencies in human life and be able to bring to his people the evidences of the hand of God working out the course of the human race in the infinite stream of human history. He must believe, with Tennyson, in a |far off divine event, toward which the whole creation moves,| or with Shakespeare when he said |There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.| If he can bring his people to see that, even though they may be living in some obscure corner of the earth, they have a part in the great movements going on, and that they can render a service by doing what they are able in supporting the programs for which the church stands, he will be contributing his share to the wholesome attitude needed in our rural communities.