The Need of Understanding the False Religions

[This is taken from Frank F. Ellinwood's Oriental Religions and Christianity, 1891.]

It is said that the very latest among the sciences is the Science of Religion. Without pausing to inquire how far it admits of scientific treatment, certain reasons which may be urged for the study of the existing religions of the world will be considered in this lecture. It must be admitted in the outset that those who have been the pioneers in this field of research have not, as a rule, been advocates of the Christian faith. The anti-Christian theory that all religions may be traced to common causes, that common wants and aspirations of mankind have led to the development of various systems according to environment, has until recently been the chief spur to this class of studies.  Accordingly, the religions of the world have been submitted to some preconceived philosophy of language, or ethnology, or evolution, with the emphasis placed upon such facts as seemed to comport with this theory. Meanwhile there has been an air of broad-minded charity in the manner in which the apologists of Oriental systems have treated the subject. They have included Christ in the same category with Plato and Confucius, and have generally placed Him at the head; and this supposed breadth of sentiment has given them a degree of influence with dubious and wavering Christians, as well as with multitudes who are without faith of any kind.

In this country the study of comparative religion has been almost entirely in the hands of non-evangelical writers. We have had “The Ten Great Religions,” from the pen of Rev. James Freeman Clarke; “The Oriental Religions,” written with great labor by the late Samuel Johnson; and Mr. Moncure D. Conway’s “Anthology,” with its flowers, gathered from the sacred books of all systems, and so chosen as to carry the implication that they all are equally inspired. Many other works designed to show that Christianity was developed from ancient sun myths, or was only a plagiarism upon the old mythologies of India, have been current among us. But strangely enough, the Christian Church has seemed to regard this subject as scarcely worthy of serious consideration. With the exception of a very able work on Buddhism,[1] and several review articles on Hinduism, written by Professor S.H. Kellogg, very little has been published from the Christian standpoint.[2] The term “heathenism” has been used as an expression of contempt, and has been applied with too little discrimination.

There is a reason, perhaps, why these systems have been underestimated.  It so happened that the races among whom the modern missionary enterprise has carried on its earlier work were mostly simple types of pagans, found in the wilds of America, in Greenland and Labrador, in the West Indies, on the African coast, or in the islands of the Pacific; and these worshippers of nature or of spirits gave a very different impression from that which the Apostles and the Early Church gained from their intercourse with the conquering Romans or the polished and philosophic Greeks. Our missionary work has been symbolized, as Sir William W. Hunter puts it, by a band of half-naked savages listening to a missionary seated under a palm-tree, and receiving his message with child-like and unquestioning faith.

But in the opening of free access to the great Asiatic nations, higher grades of men have been found, and with these we now have chiefly to do.  The pioneer of India’s missions, the devoted Ziegenbalg, had not been long in his field before he learned the mistake which the churches in Europe had made in regard to the religion and philosophy of the Hindus.  He laid aside all his old notions when he came to encounter the metaphysical subtleties of Hindu thought, when he learned something of the immense Hindu literature, the voluminous ethics, the mystical and weird mythologies, the tremendous power of tradition and social customs—when, in short, he found his way hedged up by habits of thought wholly different from his own; and he resolved to know something of the religion which the people of India already possessed.

For the benefit of others who might follow him he wrote a book on Hinduism and its relations to Christianity, and sent it to Europe for publication. But so strong were the preconceived notions which prevailed among his brethren at home, that his manuscript, instead of being published, was suppressed. “You were not sent to India to study Hinduism,” wrote Franke, “but to preach the Gospel.” But Ziegenbalg certainly was not wanting in his estimate of the chief end in view, and his success was undoubtedly far greater for the intelligent plan upon which he labored. The time came when a change had passed over the society which had sent him forth. Others, less friendly than he to the Gospel of Christ, had studied Hinduism, and had paraded it as a rival of Christianity; and in self-defense against this flank movement, the long-neglected work of Ziegenbalg was brought forth from obscurity and published.

It is partly in self-defense against similar influences, that the Christian Church everywhere is now turning increased attention to the study of Comparative Religion. In Great Britain a wider interest has been felt in the subject than in this country. And yet, even there the Church has been far behind the enemies of evangelical truth in comparing Christianity with false systems. Dr. James Stalker, of Glasgow, said a few months since that, whereas it might be expected that the advocates of the true faith would be the first to compare and contrast it with the false systems of the world, the work had been left rather to those who were chiefly interested in disparaging the truth and exalting error. Yet something has been done. Such men as Sir Monier Williams, Sir William Muir, Professors Rawlinson, Fairbairn, and Legge, Bishop Carpenter, Canon Hardwick, Doctors Caird, Dodds, Mitchell, and others, have given the false systems of the East a thorough and candid treatment from the Christian standpoint. The Church Missionary Society holds a lectureship devoted to the study of the non-Christian religions as a preparation for missionary work. And the representatives of that Society in the Punjab have instituted a course of study on these lines for missionaries recently arrived, and have offered prizes for the best attainments therein. Though we are later in this field of investigation, yet here also there is springing up a new interest, and it is safe to predict that within another decade the real character of the false religions will be more generally understood.

The prejudice which has existed in regard to this subject has taken two different forms: First, there has been the broad assumption upon which Franke wrote to Ziegenbalg, that all knowledge of heathenism is worse than useless. Good men are asking, “Is not such a study a waste of energy, when we are charged with proclaiming the only saving truth? Is not downright earnestness better than any possible knowledge of philosophies and superstitions?” And we answer, “Yes: by all means, if only the one is possible.” Another view of the subject is more serious.  May there not, after all, be danger in the study of false systems? Will there not be found perplexing parallels which will shake our trust in the positive and exclusive supremacy of the Christian faith?

Now, even if there were at first some risks to a simple, child-like confidence, yet a timid attitude involves far greater risks: it amounts to a half surrender, and it is wholly out of place in this age of fearless and aggressive discussion, when all truth is challenged, and every form of error must be met. Moreover, in a thorough study there is no danger. Sir Monier Williams tells us that at first he was surprised and a little troubled, but in the end he was more than ever impressed with the transcendent truths of the Christian faith. Professor S.H.  Kellogg assures us that the result of his careful researches in the Oriental systems is a profounder conviction of the great truths of the Gospel as divine. And even Max Mueller testifies that, while making every allowance for whatever is good in the ethnic faiths, he has been the more fully convinced of the great superiority of Christianity. Really, those are in danger who receive only the superficial and misleading representations of heathenism which one is sure to meet in our magazine literature, or in works like “Robert Elsmere” and “The Light of Asia.”

One cannot fail to mark the different light in which we view the mythologies of the Greeks and Romans. If their religious beliefs and speculations had remained a secret until our time, if the high ethical precepts of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius had only now been proclaimed, and Socrates had just been celebrated in glowing verse as the “Light of Greece,” there would be no little commotion in the religious world, and thousands with only weak and troubled faith might be disturbed. But simply because we thoroughly understand the mythology of Greece and Rome, we have no fear. We welcome all that it can teach us. We cordially acknowledge the virtues of Socrates and assign him his true place. We enrich the fancy and awaken the intellectual energies of our youth by classical studies, and Christianity shines forth with new luster by contrast with the heathen systems which it encountered in the Roman Empire ages ago.

And yet that was no easy conquest. The early church, when brought face to face with the culture of Greece and the self-assertion of Roman power, when confronted with profound philosophies like those of Plato and Aristotle, with the subtleties of the Stoics, and with countless admixtures of Persian mysticism, had, humanly speaking, quite as formidable a task as those that are presented in the heathen systems of to-day. Very few of the champions of modern heathenism can compare with Celsus, and there are no more subtle philosophies than those of ancient Greece. Evidently, the one thing needed to disenchant the false systems of our time is a clear and accurate knowledge of their merits and demerits, and of their true relation to Christianity.

It will be of advantage, for one thing, if we learn to give credit to the non-Christian religions for the good which they may fairly claim.  There has existed a feeling that they had no rights which Christian men were bound to respect. They have been looked upon as systems of unmixed evil, whose enormities it were impossible to exaggerate. And all such misconceptions and exaggerations have only led to serious reactions.  Anti-Christian writers have made great capital of the alleged misrepresentations which zealous friends of missions have put upon heathenism; and there is always great force in any appeal for fair play, on whichever side the truth may lie. Where the popular Christian idea has presented a low view of some system, scarcely rising above the grade of fetishism, the apologists have triumphantly displayed a profound philosophy. Where the masses of Christian people have credited whole nations with no higher notions of worship than a supreme trust in senseless stocks and stones, some skilful defender has claimed that the idols were only the outward symbols of an indwelling conception of deity, and has proceeded with keen relish to point out a similar use of symbols in the pictures and images of the Christian Church.

From one extreme many people have passed to another, and in the end have credited heathen systems with greater merit than they possess. A marked illustration of this fact is found in the influence which was produced by Sir Edwin Arnold’s “Light of Asia.” Sentimental readers, passing from surprise to credulity, were ready to invest the “gentle Indian Saint” with Christian conceptions which no real Buddhist ever thought of. Mr. Arnold himself is said to have expressed surprise that people should have given to his poem so serious an interpretation, or should have imagined for a moment that he intended to compare Buddhism with the higher and purer teachings of the New Testament.

In considering some of the reasons which may be urged for the study of false systems, we will first proceed from the standpoint of the candidate for the work of missions. And here there is a broad and general reason which seems too obvious to require much argument. The skilful general or the civil engineer is supposed, of course, to survey the field of contemplated operations ere he enters upon his work. The late Dr. Duff, in urging the importance of a thorough understanding of the systems which a missionary expects to encounter, illustrated his point by a reference to the great Akbar, who before entering upon the conquest of India, twice visited the country in disguise, that he might gain a complete knowledge of its topography, its strongholds, and its points of weakness, and the best methods of attack.

While all religious teachers must understand their tasks, the need of special preparation is particularly urgent in the foreign missionary, owing to his change of environment. Many ideas and methods to which he has been trained, and which would serve him well among a people of his own race, might be wholly out of place in India or China, Ram Chandra Bose, M.A.—himself a converted Brahman—has treated with great discrimination the argument frequently used, that the missionary “need only to proclaim the Glad Tidings.” He says: “That the simple story of Christ and him crucified is, after all, the truth on which the regeneration of the Christian and the non-Christian lands must hang, no one will deny. This story, ever fresh, is inherently fitted to touch the dead heart into life, and to infuse vitality into effete nationalities and dead civilizations. But a great deal of rubbish has to be removed in heathen lands, ere its legitimate consequences can be realized. And a patient, persistent study of the false religions, and the complicated systems of philosophy associated with them, enables the missionary to throw out of the way those heaps of prejudices and errors which make it impossible for the story of the cross to reach and influence the heart.”[3] It has been very wisely said that “any fragment of truth which lies in a heathen mind unacknowledged is an insuperable barrier against conviction: recognized and used, it might prove a help; neglected and ignored, it is insurmountable.”[4]

The late Dr. Mullens learned by careful observation, that the intellectual power of the Hindus had been so warped by false reasoning, that “they could scarcely understand how, when two principles are contradictory, one must be given up as false. They are prepared to receive both sides of a contradiction as true, and they feel at liberty to adopt that which seems the most comfortable. And nothing but a full exposure of evil, with a clear statement of the antagonistic truth, will suffice to awaken so perverted an intellect.”[5]

The missionary has often been surprised to find that the idea which he supposed was clearly understood, was wholly warped by the medium of Hindu thought, as a rod is apparently warped when plunged into a stream, or as a beautiful countenance is distorted by the waves and irregularities of an imperfect mirror. To the preacher, sin, for example, is an enormity in the sight of God; but to his Hindu listener it may be only a breach of custom, or a ceremonial uncleanness. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit, as it is set forth in Paul’s Epistles, is to the missionary a union in which his personality is still maintained in blest fellowship with God, while to his audience it may be only that out and out pantheism in which the deity within us supplants all individual personality, and not only excludes all joy, but all responsibility.

Professor W.G.T. Shedd has clearly pointed out the fact that the modern missionary has a harder task in dealing with the perversions of the heathen mind than that to which the Apostles of the Early Church were called, owing to the prevalence in India and elsewhere of that pantheism which destroys the sense of moral responsibility. He says: “The Greek and Roman theism left the human will free and responsible, and thus the doctrine of sin could be taught. But the pantheistic systems of the East destroy free will, by identifying God and man; and hence it is impossible to construct the doctrine of sin and atonement except by first refuting the pantheistic ethics. The missionary can get no help from conscience in his preaching, when this theory of God and the world has the ground. But St. Paul appealed confidently ‘to every man’s conscience in the sight of God,’ and called upon the ethics and theology of the Greek and Roman philosophers for a corroboration. The early Apologists, Tertullian and others, did the same thing.”

The testimonies which have been given within the last few years, by the most intelligent and observing missionaries in Eastern lands, are of such peculiar significance and force, that I shall be justified in quoting a few at some length. Rev. George William Knox, D.D., of Tokio, Japan, in accepting an election to an honorary membership of the American Society of Comparative Religion, wrote, December 17, 1890: “I am deeply in sympathy with the objects of the Society, as indeed every missionary must be. We have practical demonstrations of the value of research into the ethnic religions. Even at home the value of such research has already been great, but in these non-Christian lands it is indispensable. It is true that non-Christian systems, as found among the people, rarely exhibit the forms or the doctrines which we learn from books, but I presume the same would be said by an intelligent Asiatic, were he to study our sacred books and then compare results with much of the religion which calls itself Christian in the West. And yet for the study even of the most debased forms of Christianity in South America or Mexico, let us say, we must needs begin with our sacred books. And so it is with debased Buddhism in Japan. The Buddhism of Ceylon and of the books is unknown to this people, and when it is used as the basis of argument or exposition we do not hit the mark. Yet, after all, our debt is immeasurable to the societies and scholars that have made accessible the sources that have yielded at last such systems as are dominant here.

“The study of non-Christian systems is essential to the missionary, even though he does not refer to them in his preaching, but contents himself with delivering the Gospel message. And that is the rule with missionaries, so far as I know. But a knowledge of the native systems is imperative, that we may properly present our own. Otherwise we waste time in teaching over again that which is already fully known, or we so speak that our truth takes on the form of error, or we so underestimate the thought of those whom we address, that the preaching of the wisdom of God sounds in their ears the preaching of foolishness. The adaptation of preaching to the hearers of Asiatic lands is a task that may well make us thankful for every help that may be furnished us.... The missionary is far too apt to come from the West with exalted notions of his own superiority, and with a feeling of condescending pity for men who, perhaps, have pondered the deep things of the universe far more than he. Let him really master a philosophy like the Confucian, and he will better illustrate the Christian grace of humility, and be so much the better prepared for his work. His study will show him how astonishing is the light that has shone upon those men whom he has thought of as wholly in darkness. It will thus show him the true way of approach, and enable him to follow the lines of least resistance. It will also reveal to him what is the essential character of the divine message which he himself bears. He will separate that peculiar and spiritual truth which is the Word of Life, and will bring it as glad tidings of great joy. Surely no man can study these ethnic faiths, no matter with what appreciation of their measure of truth, and rejoicing in it, without a constantly growing conviction that the one power that converts men and establishes God’s kingdom on earth is the Word that is eternal, the Son of God. He gathers in Himself all the truth of all the religions, and He adds that divine Salvation and Life for which all the nations have waited, and without which the highest and deepest thought remains unable to bring men into living communion with the God and Father of us all.”

Rev. Martyn Clark, D.D., Missionary of the Church Missionary Society at Umritsur, India, has given thorough study to the Sanskrit, and has thereby been enabled to expose the fallacies and misrepresentations which the Arya Somaj, in its bitter controversy with the Gospel, has put forth as to the real character of the Vedic literature. No man is better able to judge of the importance of a correct understanding of the errors of the non-Christian systems than he. In a letter accepting an honorary membership of the above-named Society he says: “The object of the Society is one in which I am deeply interested, and I shall at all times do what I can to further its aims. I am convinced that there is much that is helpful to the cause of Christ to be learned in this field of research.”

Rev. H. Blodgett, D.D., veteran Missionary of the American Board in Peking, in accepting a similar honor, says: “My interest in these studies has been deep and growing. It is high time that such a society as you represent should be formed. The study of Comparative Religion has long enough been in the hands of those who hold all religions to be the outcome of the natural powers of the human mind, unaided by a revelation from God. It is time that those who believe in the revelation from God in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament founded upon the Old, should study the great ethnic religions in the light derived from the Bible.”

Rev. James S. Dennis, D.D., long a Missionary of the Presbyterian Mission in Beirut, Syria, says in the same connection: “The great missionary movement of our age has brought us face to face with problems and conflicts which are far more deep and serious than those which confront evangelistic efforts in our own land, and it is of the highest importance that the Church at home should know as fully as possible the peculiar and profound difficulties of work in foreign fields. These ancient religions of the East are behind entrenchments, and they are prepared to make a desperate resistance. Those who have never come into close contact with their adherents, and discovered by experience the difficulty of dislodging them and convincing them of the truth of the Gospel, may very properly misunderstand the work of the foreign missionary and wonder at his apparent failure, or at least his slow progress. But I wonder at the success attained in the foreign field, and consider it far more glorious and remarkable than it is generally accounted to be. A fuller acquaintance with the strength, and resources, and local éclat, and worldly advantages of these false religions, will give the Church at home greater patience and faith in the great work of evangelizing the nations.”[6]

A specific reason for the study of the non-Christian religions is found in the changes which our intercourse with Eastern nations has already wrought. With our present means of intercommunication we are brought face to face with them, and the contact of our higher vitality has aroused them from the comparative slumber of ages. Even our missionary efforts have given new vigor to the resistance which must be encountered. We have trained up a generation of men to a higher intellectual activity, and to a more earnest spirit of inquiry, and they are by no means all won over to the Christian faith. And there are thousands in India whom a Government education has left with no real faith of any kind, but whose pride of race and venerable customs is raised to a higher degree than ever. They have learned something of Christianity; they have also studied their own national systems; they have become especially familiar with all that our own skeptics have written against Christianity; still further, they have added to their intellectual equipment all that Western apologists have said of the superiority of the Oriental faiths. They are thus armed at every point, and they are using our own English tongue and all our facilities for publication. How is the young missionary, who knows nothing of their systems or the real points of comparison, to deal with such men? It is very true that not all ranks of Hindus are educated; there are millions who know nothing of any religion beyond the lowest forms of superstition, and to these we owe the duty of a simple and plain presentation of Christ and Him crucified; but in every community where the missionary is likely to live there are men of the higher class just named; and besides, professional critics and opposers are now employed to harass the bazaar preacher with perplexing questions, which are soon heard from the lips of the common people. A young missionary recently wrote of the surprise which he felt when a low caste man, almost without clothing, met him with arguments from Professor Huxley.

Missionary Boards have sometimes sent out a specialist, and in some sense a champion, who should deal with the more intelligent classes of the heathen. But such a plan is fraught with disadvantages. What is needed is a thorough preparation in all missionaries, and that involves an indispensable knowledge of the forces to be met. The power of the press is no longer a monopoly of Christian lands. The Arya Somaj, of India, is now using it, both in the vernacular and in the English, in its bitter and often scurrilous attacks. One of its tracts recently sent to me contained an English epitome of the arguments of Thomas Paine. The secular papers of Japan present in almost every issue some discussion on the comparative merits of Christianity, Buddhism, Evolution, and Theosophy, and many of the young native ministry who at first received the truth unquestioningly as a child receives it from his mother, are now calling for men whom they can follow as leaders in their struggle with manifold error.[7]

Even Mohammedans are at last employing the press instead of the sword.  Newspapers in Constantinople are exhorting the faithful to send forth missionaries to “fortify Africa against the whiskey and gunpowder of Christian commerce, by proclaiming the higher ethical principles of the Koran.” Great institutions of learning are also maintained as the special propaganda of the Oriental religions. El Azar, established at Cairo centuries ago, now numbers ten thousand students, and these when trained go forth to all Arabic speaking countries.[8] The Sanskrit colleges and monasteries of Benares number scarcely less than four thousand students,[9] who are being trained in the Sankhyan or the Vedanta philosophy, that they may go back to their different provinces and maintain with new vigor the old faiths against the aggressions of Christianity. And in Kyoto, the great religious centre of Japan, we find over against the Christian college of the American Board of Missions, a Buddhist university with a Japanese graduate of Oxford as its president.  In a great school at Tokyo, also, Buddhist teachers, aided by New England Unitarians, are maintaining the superiority of Buddhism over Western Christianity as a religion for Japan.[10]

Another reason why the missionary should study the false systems is found in the greatly diversified forms which these systems present in different lands and different ages. And just here it will be seen that a partial knowledge will not meet the demand. It might be even misleading.  Buddhism, for example, has assumed an endless variety of forms—now appearing as a system of the baldest atheism, and now presenting an approximate theism. Gautama was certainly atheistic, and he virtually denied the existence of the human soul. But in the northern development of his system, theistic conceptions sprang up. A sort of trinity had appeared by the seventh century A.D., and by the tenth century a supreme and celestial Buddha had been discovered, from whom all other Buddhas were emanations. To-day there are at least twelve Buddhist sects in Japan, of which some are mystical, others pantheistic, while two hold a veritable doctrine of salvation by faith.[11]

China has several types of Buddhism, and Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, Ceylon, Burma, and Siam present each some special features of the system. How important that one should understand these differences in order to avoid blundering, and to wisely adapt his efforts! In India, under the common generic name of Hinduism, there are also many sects: worshippers of Vishnu, worshippers of Siva, worshippers of Krishna.  There are Sikhs, and Jains, and devil worshippers; among the Dravidian and other pre-Aryan tribes there are victims of every conceivable superstition.

Now, a missionary must know something of these faiths if he would fight with “weapons of precision.” Paul, in becoming all things to all men, knew at least the differences between them. He preached the gospel with a studied adaptation. He tells us that he so strove as to win, and “not as those who beat the air.” How alert were the combatants in the arena from which his simile is borrowed! How closely each athlete scanned his man, watched his every motion, knew if possible his every thought and impulse! Much more, in winning the souls of darkened and misguided men, should we learn the inmost workings of their minds, their habits of thought, and the nature of the errors which are to be dislodged.

But how shall the false systems of religions be studied? First, there should be a spirit of entire candor. Truth is to be sought always, and at any cost; but in this case there is everything to be gained and nothing to be lost by the Christian teacher, and he can well afford to be just. Our divine Exemplar never hesitated to acknowledge that which was good in men of whatever nationality or creed. He could appreciate the faith of Roman or Syro-Phoenician. He could see merit in a Samaritan as well as in a Jew, and could raise even a penitent publican to the place of honor. It was only the Pharisees who hesitated to admit the truth, until they could calculate the probable effect of their admissions.

The very best experience of missionaries has been found in the line of Christ’s example. “The surest way to bring a man to acknowledge his errors,” says Bishop Bloomfield, “is to give him full credit for whatever he had learned of the truth.”[12] “What should we think,” says a keen observer of the work of missions—“what should we think of an engineer who, in attempting to rear a light-house on a sandbar, should fail to acknowledge as a godsend any chance outcropping of solid rock to which he might fasten his stays?”[13]

But in urging the duty of candor, I assume that an absolute freedom from bias is impossible on either side. It is sometimes amusing to witness the assurance with which professed agnostics assume that they, and they alone, look upon questions of comparative religion with an unbiased and judicial mind. They have no belief, they say, in any religion, and are therefore entirely without prejudice. But are they? Has the man who has forsaken the faith of his fathers and is deeply sensible of an antagonism between him and the great majority of those about him—has he no interest in trying to substantiate his position, and justify his hostility to the popular faith? Of all men he is generally the most prejudiced and the most bitter. We freely admit that we set out with a decided preference for one religious system above all others, but we insist that candor is possible, though an absolutely indifferent judgment is out of the question. Paul, who quoted to the Athenians their own poet, was fair-minded, and yet no man ever arraigned heathenism so terribly as he, and none was so intensely interested in the faith which he preached.

Archbishop Trench, in discussing the exaggerations from which a careful study of the Oriental religions would doubtless save us, says, “There is one against which we are almost unwilling to say a word. I mean the exaggeration of those who, in a deep devotion to the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, count themselves bound, by their allegiance to Him, to take up a hostile attitude to everything not distinctly and avowedly Christian, as though any other position were a treachery to his cause, and a surrender of his exclusive right to the authorship of all the good which is in the world. In this temper we may dwell only on the guilt and misery and defilements, the wounds and bruises and putrefying sores of the heathen world; or if aught better is brought under our eye, we may look askant and suspiciously upon it, as though all recognition of it were a disparagement of something better. And so we may come to regard the fairest deeds of unbaptized men as only more splendid sins. We may have a short but decisive formula by which to try and by which to condemn them. These deeds, we may say, were not of faith, and therefore they could not please God; the men that wrought them knew not Christ, and therefore their work was worthless—hay, straw, and stubble, to be utterly burned up in the day of the trial of every man’s work.

“Yet there is indeed a certain narrowness of view, out of which alone the language of so sweeping a condemnation could proceed. Our allegiance to Christ, as the one fountain of light and life for the world, demands that we affirm none to be good but Him, allow no goodness save that which has proceeded from Him; but it does not demand that we deny goodness, because of the place where we find it, because we meet it, a garden tree, in the wilderness. It only requires that we claim this for Him who planted, and was willing that it should grow there; whom it would itself have gladly owned as its author, if, belonging to a happier time, it could have known Him by his name, whom in part it knew by his power.

“We do not make much of a light of nature when we admit a righteousness in those to whom in the days of their flesh the Gospel had not come. We only affirm that the Word, though not as yet dwelling among us, yet being the ‘light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,’ had also lighted them. Some glimpses of his beams gilded their countenances, and gave to these whatever brightness they wore; and in recognizing this brightness we are ascribing honor to Him, and not to them; glorifying the grace of God, and not the virtues of man.”[14]

In marked contrast with this, and tending to an extreme, is the following, from the pen of Bishop Beveridge. It is quoted by Max Mueller, in the opening volume of “The Sacred Books of the East,” as a model of candor.

“The general inclinations which are naturally implanted in my soul to some religion, it is impossible for me to shift off; but there being such a multiplicity of religions in the world, I desire now seriously to consider with myself which of them all to restrain these my general inclinations to. And the reason of this my inquiry is not, that I am in the least dissatisfied with that religion I have already embraced; but because ‘tis natural for all men to have an overbearing opinion and esteem for that particular religion they are born and bred-up in. That, therefore, I may not seem biased by the prejudice of education, I am resolved to prove and examine them all; that I may see and hold fast to that which is best.... Indeed, there was never any religion so barbarous and diabolical, but it was preferred above all other religions whatsoever by them that did profess it; otherwise they would not have professed it.... And why, say they, may you not be mistaken as well as we? Especially when there are, at least, six to one against your Christian religion; all of which think they serve God aright; and expect happiness thereby as well as you.... And hence it is that in my looking out for the truest religion, being conscious to myself how great an ascendancy Christianity holds over me beyond the rest, as being that religion whereunto I was born and baptized; that the supreme authority has enjoined and my parents educated me in; that which everyone I meet withal highly approves of, and which I myself have, by a long-continued profession, made almost natural to me; I am resolved to be more jealous and suspicious of this religion than of the rest, and be sure not to entertain it any longer without being convinced by solid and substantial arguments of the truth and certainty of it. That, therefore, I may make diligent and impartial inquiry into all religions and so be sure to find out the best, I shall for a time look upon myself as one not at all interested in any particular religion whatsoever, much less in the Christian religion; but only as one who desires, in general, to serve and obey Him that made me in a right manner, and thereby to be made partaker of that happiness my nature is capable of.”[15]

Second, in studying the false systems it is important to distinguish between religion and ethics. In the sphere of ethics the different faiths of men may find much common ground, while in their religious elements they may be entirely true or utterly false. The teachings of Confucius, though agnostic, presented a moral code which places the relations of the family and state on a very firm basis. And the very highest precepts of Buddhism belong to the period in which it was virtually atheistic. Many great and noble truths have been revealed to mankind through the conscience and the understanding, and these truths have found expression in the proverbs or ethical maxims of all races. To this extent God has nowhere left himself without witness. But all this is quite apart from a divinely revealed religion which may be cherished or be wholly lost. The golden rule is found not only in the New Testament, but negatively at least in the Confucian classics;[16] and the Shastras of the Hindus present it in both the positive and the negative form. And the still higher grace of doing good to those who injure us, was proclaimed by Lao-tzu, five hundred years before Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount.

The immense superiority of the ethical standard in Christianity, lies in its harmony and completeness. Confucius taught the active virtues of life, Lao-tzu those of a passive kind; Christianity inculcates both. In heathenism ethical truths exist in fragments—mere half truths, like the broken and scattered remains of a temple once beautiful but now destroyed. They hold no relation to any high religious purpose, because they have no intelligent relation to God. Christian ethics begin with our relations to God as supreme, and they embrace the present life and the world to come. The symmetry of the divine precept, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself,” finds no counterpart in the false religions of the world. Nowhere else, not even in Buddhism, is found the perfect law of love. The great secret of power in Christianity is God’s unspeakable love to men in Christ; and the reflex of that love is the highest and purest ever realized in human hearts.

Thirdly, the false systems should be studied by the Christian missionary, not for their own sakes so much as for an ulterior purpose, and they should be studied in constant comparison with the religion which it is his business to proclaim. His aim is not that of a savant.  Let us not disguise it: he is mainly endeavoring to gain a more thorough preparation for his own great work. The professional scholar at Oxford or Leipzig might condemn this acknowledged bias—this pursuit of truth as a means and not as an end—but if he would be entirely frank, he would often find himself working in the interest of a linguistic theory, or a pet hypothesis of social science. It was in this spirit that Spencer and Darwin have searched the world for facts to support their systems.[17]

I repeat, it is enough for the missionary that he shall be thoroughly candid. He may exercise the burning zeal of Paul for the Gospel which he proclaims, if he will also exercise his clear discrimination, his scrupulous fairness, his courtesy, and his tact. Let him not forget that he is studying religions comparatively; he should proceed with the Bible in one hand, and should examine the true and the false together.  Contrasts will appear step by step as he advances, and the great truths of Christianity will stand out in brighter radiance, for the shadows of the background. If the question be asked, when and where shall the missionary candidate study the false systems, I answer at once; before he leaves his native land; and I assign three principal reasons. First:

The study of a new and difficult language should engross his attention when he reaches his field. This will prove one of the most formidable tasks of his life, and it will demand resolute, concentrated, and prolonged effort. Second: In gaining access to the people, studying their ways and winning their confidence, the missionary will find great advantage in having gained some previous knowledge of their habits of thought and the intricacies of their beliefs. Third: The means and appliances of study are far greater here at home than on the mission fields. A very serious difficulty with most missionaries is the want of books on special topics; they have no access to libraries, and if one has imagined that he can best understand the faiths of the people by personal contact with them, he will soon learn with surprise how little he can gain from them, and how little they themselves know of their own systems. Those who do know have learned for the purpose of baffling the missionary instead of helping him. The accumulation and the arrangement of anything like a systematic knowledge of heathen systems has cost the combined effort of many missionaries and many Oriental scholars; and now, after three generations have pursued these studies, it is still felt that very much is to be learned from literatures yet to be translated. Such as there are, are best found in the home libraries.

Let us for a few moments consider the question how far those who are not to become missionaries may be profited by a study of false systems. To a large extent, the considerations already urged will apply to them also, but there are still others which are specially important to public teachers here at home. Dean Murray, in an able article published in the “Homiletic Review” of September, 1890, recommended to active and careworn pastors a continued study of the Greek classics, as calculated to refresh and invigorate the mind, and increase its capacity for the duties of whatever sphere. All that he said of the Greek may also be said of the Hindu classics, with the added consideration that in the latter we are dealing with the living issues of the day. Sir Monier Williams, in comparing the two great Epics of the Hindus with those of Homer, names many points of superiority in the former.[18] It is safe to say that no poems of any other land have ever exercised so great a spell over so many millions of mankind as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, of India, and no other production is listened to with such delight as the story of Rama as it is still publicly read at the Hindu festivals.

Of philosophies, no system of India has approached so near to veritable divine revelation as that of Plato, but in variety and subtlety, and in their far-reaching influence upon human life, the Indian schools, especially the Vedanta, are scarcely excelled to this day. And they are applied philosophies; they constitute the religion of the people. Max Mueller has said truly that no other line of investigation is so fascinating as that which deals with the long and universal struggle of mankind to find out God, and to solve the mystery of their relations to him. Unfortunately, human history has dealt mainly with wars and intrigues, and the rise and fall of dynasties; but compared with these coarse and superficial elements, how much more interesting and instructive to trace in all races of men the common and ceaseless yearnings after some solution of life’s mysteries! One is stirred with a deeper, broader sympathy for mankind when he witnesses this universal sense of dependence, this fear and trembling before the powers of an unseen world, this pitiful procession of unblest millions ever trooping on toward the goal of death and oblivion. And from this standpoint, as from no other, may one measure the greatness and glory of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

To my mind there is nothing more pathetic than the spectacle of world-wide fetishism. It is not to be contemplated with derision, but with profoundest sympathy. We all remember the pathos of Scott’s picture of his Highland heroine, with brain disordered by unspeakable grief, beguiling her woes with childish ornaments of “gaudy broom” and plumes from the eagle’s wing. But sadder far is the spectacle of millions of men made for fellowship with God, building their hopes on the divinity dwelling in an amulet of tiger’s teeth or serpent’s fangs or curious shells. And it ought to enlarge our natures with a Christ-like sympathy when we contemplate those dark and desperate faiths which are but nightmares of the soul, which see in all the universe only malevolent spirits to be appeased, which, looking heavenward for a father’s face, see, as Richter expressed it, “only a death’s head with bottomless, empty sockets” instead of a loving smile.[19]

And what a field do the greater but equally false systems present for the study of the human mind and heart! How was it that the simple nature worship of the Indo-Aryans grew into the vast deposit of modern Hinduism, and developed those social customs which have become walls of adamant? How could Buddhism grow out of such a soil and finally cast its spell over so many peoples? What were the elements of power which enabled the great sage of China to rear a social and political fabric which has survived for so many centuries? How was it that Islam gained its conquests, and what is the secret of that dominion which it still holds? These surely are questions worthy of those who are called to deal with human thought and human destiny. And when by comparison we find the grand differentials which raise Christianity infinitely above them all, we shall have gained the power of presenting its truths more clearly and more convincingly to the minds and hearts of men.

There are some specific advantages flowing from the study of other religions of which I will give little more than an enumeration.

1. It impresses us with the universality of some more or less distinct conception of God. I am aware that from time to time explorers imagine that they have found a race of men who have no notion of God, but in almost every instance subsequent investigation has found a religious belief. Such mistakes were made concerning the aborigines of Australia, the Dyaks of Borneo, the Papuans, the Patagonians, and even the American Indians. The unity of the race finds a new and striking proof in the universality of religion.

2. The study of false systems brings to light an almost unanimous testimony for the existence of a vague primeval monotheism, and thus affords a strong presumptive corroboration of the Scriptural doctrine of man’s apostasy from the worship of the true God.

3. The clearest vindication of the severities of the Old Testament Theocracy, in its wars of extermination against the Canaanites and Phoenicians, is to be found in a careful study of the foul and cruel types of heathenism which those nations carried with them wherever their colonies extended. A religion which enjoined universal prostitution, and led thus to sodomy and the burning of young children in the fires of Moloch, far exceeded the worst heathenism of Africa or the islands of the Pacific. The Phoenician settlements on the Mediterranean have not even yet recovered from the moral blight of that religion; and had such a cult been allowed to spread over all Europe and the world, not even a second Deluge could have cleansed the earth of its defilement. The extermination of the Canaanites, when considered as a part of one great scheme for establishing in that same Palestine a purer and nobler faith, and sending forth thence, not Phoenician corruption, but the Gospel of Peace to all lands, becomes a work of mercy to the human race.

4. The ethics of the heathen will be found to vindicate the doctrines of the Bible. This is a point which should be more thoroughly understood.  It has been common to parade the high moral maxims of heathen systems as proofs against the exclusive claims of Christianity. But when carefully considered, the lofty ethical truths found in all sacred books and traditions, corroborate the doctrines of the Scriptures. They condemn the nations “who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” They enforce the great doctrine that by their own consciences all mankind are convicted of sin, and are in need of a vicarious righteousness,--a full and free salvation by a divine power. My own experience has been, and it is corroborated by that of many others, that very many truths of the Gospel, when seen from the stand-point of heathenism, stand out with a clearness never seen before.

Many prudential reasons like those which we have given for the study of false systems by missionaries, pertain also to those who remain at home.  Both are concerned in the same cause, and both encounter the same assailments of our common faith. We are all missionaries in an important sense: we watch the conflict from afar, but we are concerned in all its issues. The bulletins of its battle-fields are no longer confined to missionary literature; they are found in the daily secular press, and they are discussed with favorable or unfavorable comments in the monthly magazines. The missionary enterprise has come to attract great attention: it has many friends, and also many foes, here at home; it is misrepresented by scoffers at our doors. The high merits of heathen systems, set forth with every degree of exaggeration, pass into the hands of Christian families, in books and magazines and secular papers.  Apostles of infidelity are sent out to heathen countries to gather weapons against the truth. Natives of various Oriental lands, once taught in our mission schools perhaps, but still heathen, are paraded on our lecture platforms, where they entertain us with English and American arguments in support of their heathen systems and against Christianity.  Young pastors, in the literary clubs of their various communities, are surprised by being called to discuss plausible papers on Buddhism, which some fellow-member has contributed, and they are expected to defend the truth. Or some young parishioner has been fascinated by a plausible Theosophist, or has learned from Robert Elsmere that there are other religions quite as pure and sacred as our own. Or some chance lecturer has disturbed the community with a discourse on the history of religious myths. And when some anxious member of a church learns that his religious instructor has no help for him on such subjects, that they lie wholly outside of his range, there is apt to be something more than disappointment: there is a loss of confidence.

It is an unfortunate element in the case that error is more welcome in some of our professedly neutral papers than the truth: an article designed to show that Christianity was borrowed from Buddhism or was developed from fetishism will sometimes be welcomed as new sensation, while a reply of half the length may be rejected.

There is something ominous in these facts. Whether the secular press (not all papers are thus unfair) are influenced by partisan hatred of the truth or simply by a reckless regard for whatever is most popular, the facts are equally portentous. And if it be true that such publications are what the people most desire, the outlook for our country is dark indeed. The saddest consideration is that the power of the secular press is so vast and far reaching. When Celsus wrote, books were few. When Voltaire, Hume, and Thomas Paine made their assailments on the Christian faith, the means of spreading the blight of error were comparatively few. But now the accumulated arguments of German infidels for the last half-century may be thrown into a five-cent Sunday paper, whose issue will reach a quarter of a million of copies, which perhaps a million of men and women may read. These articles are copied into a hundred other papers, and they are read in the villages and hamlets; they are read on the ranches and in the mining camps where no sermon is ever heard.

It is perfectly evident that in an age like this we cannot propagate Christianity under glass. It must grow in the open field where the free winds of heaven shall smite and dissipate every cloud of error that may pass over it, and where its roots shall only strike the deeper for the questionings and conflicts that may often befall it. Error cannot be overcome either by ignoring it or by the cheap but imbecile scolding of an ignorant pulpit.

I cannot express the truth on this point more forcibly than by quoting the trenchant words of Professor Ernest Naville, in his lectures on “Modern Atheism.” After having admitted that one, who can keep himself far from the strifes and struggles of modern thought, will find solitude, prayer, and calm activity, pursued under the guidance of conscience, most conducive to unquestioning faith and religious peace, he says: “But we are not masters of our own ways, and the circumstances of the present times impose on us special duties. The barriers which separate the school and the world are everywhere thrown down; everywhere shreds of philosophy, and very often of very bad philosophy, scattered fragments of theological science, and very often of a deplorable theological science, are insinuating themselves into the current literature. There is not a literary review, there is scarcely a political journal, which does not speak on occasion, or without occasion, of the problems relating to our eternal interests. The most sacred beliefs are attacked every day in the organs of public opinion.  At such a juncture can men, who preserve faith in their own souls, remain like dumb dogs, or keep themselves shut up in the narrow limits of the schools? Assuredly not. We must descend to the common ground and fight with equal weapons the great battles of thought. For this purpose it is necessary to state questions which run the risk of startling sincerely religious persons. But there is no help for it if we are to combat the adversaries on their own ground; and because it is thus only that we can prove to all that the torrent of negations is but a passing rush of waters, which, fret as they may in their channels, shall be found to have left not so much as a trace of their passage upon the Rock of Ages.” The fact that Professor Naville’s lectures were delivered in Geneva and Lausanne, to audiences which together numbered over two thousand five hundred people, affords abundant proof that the people are prepared to welcome the relief afforded by a clear and really able discussion of these burning questions. In the ordinary teaching of the pulpit they would be out of place, but every public teacher should be able to deal with them on suitable occasions.

In a single concluding word, the struggle of truth and error has become world-wide. There are no ethnic religions now. There is Christianity in Calcutta, and there is Buddhism in Boston. The line of battle is the parallel that belts the globe. It is not a time for slumber or for mere pious denunciation. There must be no blundering: the warfare must be waged with weapons of precision, and then victory is sure. It is well if our missionary effort of a century has drawn the fire of the enemy; it is well if the time has come to hold up the truth face to face with error, and to fight out and over again the conflict of Elijah and the Priests of Baal.



[Footnote 1: The Light of Asia and the Light of the World. Macmillan & Co.]

[Footnote 2: The late Professor Moffat, of Princeton Theological Seminary, published a Comparative History of Religions, but its field was too broad for a thorough treatment.]

[Footnote 3: Methodist Quarterly.]

[Footnote 4: Quoted in Manual of India Missions.]

[Footnote 5: Manual of India Missions.]

[Footnote 6: Similar views, though in briefer terms, have been presented by Rev. William A.P. Martin, D.D., of Peking; Rev. John L. Nevins, D.D., of Chefou; Rev. A.P. Happer, D.D., and Rev. B.C. Henry, D.D., of Canton;

Professor John Wortabet, M.D., of Beyrout; Rev. Jacob Chamberlain, D.D., Missionary of the Reformed Church in Madras; Rev. Z.J. Jones, D.D., Missionary of the American M.E. Church at Bareilly, India; Rev. K.C.  Chattergee and Ram Chandra Bose, both converts from high caste Hinduism and both eminent ministers of the Gospel in India; and Rev. E.W. Blyden, D.D., the accomplished African scholar of Liberia.]

[Footnote 7: The Japan Mail of September 30, 1891, in reviewing the progress of religious and philosophic discussion as carried on by the native press of the Empire, says: “The Buddhist literature of the season shows plainly the extent to which the educated members of the (Buddhist) priesthood are seeking to enlarge their grasp by contact with Western philosophy and religious thought. We happen to know that a prominent priest of the Shinsu sect is deeply immersed in Comte’s humanitarianism.  In Kyogaku-roushu (a native paper) are published installments of Spencer’s philosophy. Another paper, the Hauseikwai, has an article urging the desirability of a general union of all the (Buddhist) sects, such as Colonel Olcott brought about in India between the northern and the southern Buddhists.”]

[Footnote 8: Leaves from an Egyptian Note-book.]

[Footnote 9: Papers of Rev. Mr. Hewlett in the Indian Evangelical Review.]

[Footnote 10: In an address given in Tokyo, by Rev. Mr. Knapp, of Boston, Buddhists in Japan were advised to build their religion of the future upon their own foundations, and not upon the teachings of Western propagandists.]

[Footnote 11: The Twelve Buddhist Sects of Japan, by Bunyiu Nanjio, Oxon.]

[Footnote 12: Quoted in Manual of India Missions.]

[Footnote 13: Quoted in Manual of India Missions.]

[Footnote 14: Hulsean Lectures, 1846.]

[Footnote 15: Private Thoughts on Religion, Part I., Article 2.]

[Footnote 16: Confucius not only taught that men should not do to others what they would not have done to them, but when one of his disciples asked him to name one word which should represent the whole duty of man, he replied “Reciprocity.”]

[Footnote 17: Whoever will read the Preface of Mr. Spencer’s work on Sociology will be surprised at the means which have been used in collecting and verifying supposed facts; a careful perusal of the book will show that all classes of testimony have been accepted, so far as they were favorable. Adventurers, reporters, sailors, and that upon the briefest and most casual observation, have been deemed capable of interpreting the religious beliefs of men. Even Peschel doubts many of their conclusions.]

[Footnote 18: See Indian Wisdom.]

[Footnote 19: Archbishop Trench, after speaking in his Hulsean lectures of the advantages which we may gain from an earnest study of the struggles of thoughtful men, who amid heathen darkness have groped after a knowledge of the true God, and of the gratitude which we ought to feel who have received a more sure word of prophecy, adds in words of rare beauty: “And perhaps it shall seem to us as if that star in the natural heavens which guided those Eastern sages from their distant home, was but the symbol of many a star which, in the world’s mystical night, such as, being faithfully followed, availed to lead humble and devout hearts from far-off regions of superstition and error, till they knelt beside the cradle of the Babe of Bethlehem, and saw all their weary wanderings repaid in a moment, and all their desires finding a perfect fulfillment in Him.”]





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