Pretentious Piety


The more things have changed, some things have remained the same.  Such is the case for Christians in a typical church.

When Samuel Blair assumed the pulpit of Faggs Manor Presbyteran Church in 1740 he found a congregation in a spiritual condition not uncommon even in our day. Blair wrote that when he came to the church he found many good religious people who performed their religious obligation rather well. Yet they were, in his estimation, somewhat formal and unenthusiastic:

If they performed these duties pretty punctually in their seasons and, as they thought, with good meaning, out of conscience, and not just to obtain a name for religion among men, then they were ready to conclude that they were truly and sincerely religious. A very lamentable ignorance of the main essentials of true practical religion, and the doctrines nearly relating thereunto very generally prevailed.  The nature and necessity of the new birth was but litle known or thought of, the necessity of a conviction of sin and misery, by the Holy Spirit’s opening and applying the law to the conscience, in order to a saving closure with Christ, was hardly known at all to most.  It was thought, that if there was any need of a heart-distressing sight of the soul’s danger, and fear of divine wrath, it wa only needed for the grosser sort of sinners; and for any others to be deeply exercised this way (as might in some rare instances observable), this was generally looked upon to be a great evil and temptation that had befallen those persons.  The common names for such soul-concern were, melancholy, trouble of mind, or despair.  These terms were common, so far as I have been acquainted, indifferently used as synonymous; and trouble of mind was looked upon as a great evil, which all persons that made any sober profession and practice of religion ought carefully avoid.  …There was scarcely any suspicion at all, in general, of any danger of depending upon self-righteousness, and not upon the righteousness of Christ alone for salvation.  Papists [Roman Catholics) and Quakers would be readily acknowldeged guilty of this crime, but hardly any professed Presbyterian. The necessity of being first in Christ by a vital union, and in a justified state, before our religious services can be well pleasing and acceptable to God, was very little understood or thought of; but the common notion seemed to be, that if people were aiming to be in the way of duty as well as they could, at they imagined, there was no reason to be much afraid.

[Source: The Forming of an American Tradition: A Re-Examination of Colonial Presbyterianism, by Leonard J. Trinterud; Westminster Press, 1959; pp. 77-78]

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