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Title: Substance of a Sermon on the Bible Society

Author: Francis Cunningham

Release date: June 28, 2016 [eBook #52426]

Language: English


Transcribed from the 1816 Brightly and Childs edition by David Price, email

ON FRIDAY, DEC. 1st, 1815.




By the Rev. F. CUNNINGHAM.  A. B.



Printed by Brightly and Childs;




[Price six pence.]



MARK xvi. 15.

Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.

This was nearly the last command of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, addressed to his disciples: and to it was annexed in another gospel, a promise, which shows that this was not only intended as a commandment for that period, but for the present day.  “Lo I am with you alway” (he said at the same time) “even unto the end of the world.”  The command then extends to as long a period as the support is promised to be continued, i.e. to the end of the world.

In placing myself therefore as an advocate for a society, the purpose of which is, the distribution of the word of God, I have not thought that I could choose a text which more strongly and persuasively urges upon you a zealous promotion of this great work, than a command so directly laid down upon this subject, and to the fulfilment of which such large assistance is promised.  For what is the gospel which the disciples of our Lord are commanded to preach?  The Gospel in its strictest sense is good news; it is all that good news of happiness now, which is promised in the ways of p. 4religion, and of salvation hereafter.  The gospel which is here recommended is all the communication of God to man, which has been made to us in the holy Scriptures.  It conveys all the information which man has of his condemned state by nature before God, and points out at the same time a prospect of a full propitiation for his sins in the death of Jesus Christ.  It offers to sinners, to all who are weary and heavy laden, a free invitation to come, without any merit of their own, to receive the benefits of Jesus Christ’s death; it affords to those who are assured of their salvation, a measure by which they can determine whether their hope of salvation be reasonable, or whether it be founded upon their own delusions; it gives us a standard for every duty, an encouragement for every exertion, a wanting against every sin; and whilst on the one hand it declares that “without holiness no man shall see the Lord,” on the other it testifies that “there is no condemnation with God to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the spirit.”  Such is the gospel which we are commanded to preach to every creature, and which is unfolded to us in the word of God.

I cannot in a Christian congregation for a moment suppose that any command of our Lord can be disputed; I need, therefore, scarcely feel that it is necessary to do much more than to take for granted that it is one of the great leading duties of every Christian, to spread abroad this gospel, or in other words, to promote the circulation of the Scriptures.  What can be the objection to circulating the simple word of God?  Is it that some work ought to accompany it, in order to protect, or give it a right application?  The command of our Lord has no limitation of this kind.  “Go” says my text “and preach the gospel;” (this gospel which the apostles have delivered down to us in the Scriptures,) “go and preach it to every creature.”  Is an objection started that all the word of God ought not to be circulated, that some part of it is needless, some unintelligible?  We have in answer to this, the words of an apostle, who declares to us that “all Scripture is given by inspiration from God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”  Thank God that very few have started the notion, that the p. 5Scriptures alone should not be spread abroad, and it seems to me wonderful that any should presume to determine, that what God has sent forth for the salvation of mankind, is not sufficient for that purpose, or would, without the assistance of the works of fallible men, lead his creatures into error.  As Christians then, we must admit that the Scriptures should be universally circulated.  We are also called upon to circulate them as members of a Protestant church; for we must not forget, that in distinction from those, from whom we as a church dissented, that the great maxim upon which our fathers acted, and for which so many of them gave up their lives, was “that the Bible, and the Bible alone is the religion of Protestants.”  As Protestants therefore we are called upon to circulate the word of God.  As members also of the Church of England, we are bound to engage in the same work.  Our church has called herself the daughter of the Bible.  This was the holy origin from which it was all its boast to have sprung.  Our church certainly had its origin at a time, when, of all others in this country, the Bible was the best understood, and was the most simply interpreted; it was constructed moreover by men who with their blood, sealed the commentary which they made upon the Scriptures, when they compiled the liturgy, articles, and discipline of our establishment.  Whether then we come to the consideration of the question of distributing the sacred Scriptures without note or comment, as Christians, as Protestants, or as members of the established Church, we must admit that it is our duty, our high and bounden duty to do it; and, as the apostle said, “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel,” so we must say, Woe is me, if I do not, as much as in me lies, seek to give the Bible to every creature.  The question now is, what are the best means to effect this end? and this, I venture to suggest, is the British and Foreign Bible Society.

I shall endeavour to establish in the first place as a principle, that it is only by a system of co-operation of all parties that the work of universally distributing the Scriptures can be effected.  Let us look to a fact upon this point.  In our own country, a society was instituted, about a century since, which is now called the Bartlett’s Buildings’ Society, or p. 6Society for promoting Christian knowledge.  The object of this society was to distribute the word of God over the world, and to promote the preaching of the gospel.  This society is confined to our own church, for it admits no members who do not give good security that they are churchmen.  The object of this society was as pure as possible; the administration of that branch of it at least which has been employed in the circulation of the Scriptures, has, as far as I know, continued faultless; but the operations of the whole society have been necessarily contracted, because it was confined to the church.  The effect produced by this society may be seen by examining the result of an hundred years’ trial.  It was found about twelve years since, that in many villages of England, the Bible, except in the churches, was hardly known; within a mile of its depository, not one half of the families were in possession of the word of God; and in this diocese it was calculated, that ten thousand families were without a Bible.  At this period the principle of the co-operation of all parties, who took the Bible as the basis of their religion, began to be understood, and the Bible Society was formed, which admitted all subscribers of whatever denomination into its ranks; the most astonishing results have thus been obtained.  This society has distributed, in the course of eleven years, nearly one million four hundred thousand Bibles and Testaments; and the Bible has been translated and printed, in whole or in part, in fifty-five different languages or dialects.  By this fact we may see the comparative power of the two societies; and also it is manifest, that a society, even carried on by the largest and most opulent part of the community, could not effect the object intended; and that therefore no society, made up of only one class in the country, could accomplish the great work which it is our hope to perform. [6]

p. 7Now conceive a man contriving some great work which he hopes will be a national blessing; which will cure the diseases, or lessen the sorrows of his countrymen, and which work requires the exertion of all his countrymen to carry into effect.  Would he stop short in his design, because he might, by bringing all parties to bear upon the common object, unite them in that object.  Would he say, My object is indeed of the highest importance, but I cannot consent to unite all parties in it, because the union of all parties, although for a good purpose, would be an evil?  Would he say, for example, I cannot bring all a country together to build an hospital, or to erect an infirmary, because by doing so, I should make peace amongst discordant neighbours, or I should heal political breaches?  Would he not account the union, even the partial and temporary union of all parties, to be in itself a great benefit?  Would he not be glad, if by any influence, and especially by a good influence, he could lay to rest the evil spirit of bigotry or malevolence?  He would surely say, My plan has in it two great benefits: in the first place, by bringing all persons together, I shall be enabled to effect my p. 8purpose; and secondly, I shall unite those persons between whom discord and rancour prevailed.

It is just in this way I would reason about the Bible Society.  We have a great work to perform, a work which, as I have shewn, can alone be effected by the co-operation of all parties.  We are bound to this work by the most solemn and unequivocal command of our Saviour.  But now the question arises, whether to effect this great point, we may admit of an union of all parties to accomplish it?  An unprejudiced person would say, this union is an additional motive for my exertion.

But opposers have said, that by all parties being brought together, Christians have been led to feel less distinctly the points upon which they disagreed, and that thus great evils have arisen amongst Christians in general, and to the Establishment in particular.  I will now then endeavour shortly to examine the effect of the union of all parties, which is produced by this institution, upon Christians in general and upon the Church.

What, in the first place, has been the effect upon the general body of dissenters?  But a few years since, within the recollection of many of us, the consequences of a thoroughly dissenting spirit, in politics and religion, were to be seen.  No temper was then preserved, either on the side of the church, or the dissenters.  Each party was employed in discovering all that was objectionable in the other: little evils were magnified—particular faults generalized: a spirit of envy and hatred reigned in the meetings of men, who, as Christians, might have taken “sweet counsel together.”  Now, this is certainly not the case.  Both amongst churchmen and dissenters, a considerable abatement of hostility has taken place.  Whilst, on the one hand, churchmen have, in general, fulfilled more carefully the duties of their profession; I may say, that on the other, the spirit of dissenters has exceedingly changed.  Dissenters may have had some well-grounded blame to attach, in many cases, to the members of our church; yet, it is likely that they by no means gave the church itself credit for the good which now they find to be in it.  They thought that the lamp of our temple p. 9had gone out, that the branch was withered which once produced that glorious fruit, in the time of the Reformation.  But now I believe that the dissenters are undeceived; and that the Bible Society has tended to undeceive them.  They have seen that want of zeal, is not the effect of the system, but of the individuals; and, as they have discovered this, I may say, most honourably to themselves, they seem to have laid down the weapons of controversy against us, and are engaged in fighting our common enemies, in wielding that sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  Now the meetings which we have of dissenters and churchmen, are not to wrangle and dispute with each other, but to take new pledges that we will oppose the enemies of our common Christianity; they are to join in consuming the brand, which once might have been pointed against one another, upon an altar of unity, piety, and peace.

But now, in the second place, what has been the effect of this union upon the members of the Established Church?  It may be said, that such meetings will tend to unfix our decided approbation of the doctrines and discipline of the Established Church.  But they can know nothing of the nature of these meetings who urge this objection.  There is nothing in them either to convert a churchman or a dissenter.  The churchman will come away still a churchman; and the dissenter still a dissenter.  No one church-principle, or church-feeling; no one point of doctrine, of discipline, or of practice, will be the least affected, or called in question, by attending a meeting of the Bible Society.  The sole object for which churchmen and dissenters are united, is to distribute the word of God; but can the distribution of the word of God be injurious to the establishment?  If we believe that the tenets of dissenters are plainly contradicted in the Bible, should we not then as churchmen, be thankful that they are willing to circulate, throughout the world, a refutation of their own system?  Can the distribution of the word of truth, under any circumstances, be injurious to a true church?  To say that the circulation of the Bible can injure the Establishment, seems to me an unwarranted scandal upon it; and perhaps no notion would be more injurious to the interests p. 10of the Church of England, than that it cannot bear examination, if brought to the test of the word of God.

It has been said, that the Bible Society is an instrument of dissenters to overturn the church.  But if so, it is a work in which the greatest, the most wise and attached friends of the Establishment have joined; it has been supported by bishops, and ministers, and princes: men of all parties, and of no precisely similar views, or interests, or feelings.  It is urged, that remote evils may arise, that the present principle of the Bible Society may be departed from; that dissenters may in time preponderate, and direct this instrument against ourselves.  Of all these objections, it must be said, that they are entirely without proof, or the probability of proof: besides that we are hardly, as Christians, allowed to calculate so nicely on one side, upon evils certainly remote, and merely conjectural; whilst, on the other, we have this ascertained fact, that fourteen hundred thousand Bibles have been circulated, in fifty-five different languages.  It may still be said, all churchmen should join in the society which is attached to the Establishment.  I would urge all churchmen to do so.  But I would, at the same time, persuade them to join in this society;—for the two societies stand upon different grounds.  The powers of the two societies are different, their objects are different; the one is a national society, and its operations are almost necessarily confined to home; the other takes the whole world for its sphere: the one is doing good in the boundary of a little family; the other comprehends all the circumference of the globe! [10]

p. 11I have now then endeavoured to point out to you the benefit of the principle of co-operation, as proved in this society; its benefit in the astonishing circulation which it has given to the word of God, and in the spirit of union which it has produced.  I have also endeavoured to shew that this union has been beneficial to Christians in general, and that it has not been injurious, nor can be injurious, to the established church.

The question of the Bible Society however, is one, which in my mind takes much higher ground than that of the advantage or disadvantage of a particular church.  It takes its stand upon the authoritative dictate of One who has commanded us to preach the gospel to every creature; and to whose command, if we will not submit, the Son may be angry, and so we shall perish from the right way: it takes its stand upon our own feeling of the value of this book: which feeling calls upon us to act vigorously in the dispersion of the blessed truths which it promulgates; that as we have received mercy, so we should shew mercy; that as Christ has loved us, so should we love one another.

I will now, however, yet consider more particularly some of the results which have attended the establishment of this society; and the want of the Scriptures which now exists in the world.

The Bible Society, which was instituted without any hope of very great extension, has, in the course of eleven years, spread itself not only over this country, but over the greater part of the world.  In this country it has now four hundred and eighty-eight branches attached to it; and in the four quarters of the world, institutions similar to itself have been formed.  In Europe forty different societies have been established: in Asia four: in Africa two: and in America upwards of eighty.  Most of the capitals of Europe have a society formed in them; and these are again, as in England, subdivided.  In the Netherlands, for example, there are thirty-two subordinate societies; and the city of Amsterdam has besides, thirty-two associations.  Societies have been formed throughout Russia, under the munificent patronage of the Emperor; and, in a part of Russia, they are established p. 12in every parish, under the direction of the pastor.  The establishment of this society seems to have formed a new æra in the religious history of Russia; for we read, that at the great meeting of the Russian Bible Society, the first dignitaries of the Greek, Armenian, Catholic, and Georgian churches, all most heartily co-operated in this work; none seemed to fear the subversion of their own religion, by the dissemination of the Bible; all, although they retained the opinions of their respective churches, yet felt, that in this one point, they might fully and heartily join.  In Asia, and especially amongst our own fellow-subjects in India, the work of translating the Bible has been carried on with very great success.  The Bible has there been translated, or is in the course of translation, into twenty-five different languages.  The New Testament has also been translated, and is distributing in the language of China, which is said to be spoken by three hundred millions of people.

The income of this society has of course been very large, to meet the expenditure which has been necessary to these vast operations.  This income has every year been increasing, but as the supplies are made, the wants of the world are more known; and the demand at this time, seems almost to be infinite.  I will now lay before you, some of the cases in which the wants of the world have been remarkably shewn.  In the province of Georgia, where a Christian church has existed about one thousand four hundred years, and where there are about half a million of inhabitants, there have not been found, in two thousand churches, two hundred copies of the Scriptures; i.e. not one Bible for ten churches.  In Iceland, five silver dollars have been offered in vain for a copy of the word of God; and the case of a clergyman is presented, who had sought in vain to obtain a copy of the Scriptures, for the long period of seventeen years.  In many parishes were found two Bibles, in others none at all.  Whatever country has been searched into, whether catholic countries, where the Bible has never been fully circulated; or protestant countries, where once the fire of religion blazed with a pure flame, and spread a warmth around, which even reached, and animated our own shores, the Bible is now scarcely known, p. 13or known only as a monument of departed piety, as a relic treasured up, of other, and of better times.  Europe has not suffered more political, than it has religious convulsions.  Whatever may have been the effect of the one, all the changes of religion seem to have been for the worse.  The Bible, which had been the support of the only pure religions, has been taken away, and now these fabrics have fallen, or decayed.  I will only mention one more fact concerning the wants of the world, which is that of our fellow subjects in India, and which may serve to give us an idea of heathen nations in general.  Although, says the correspondent of this society, “we have ten presses at constant work, we have not had a copy of the Bengalee and Hindoostanee New Testaments the last six months; and we are obliged to give away a single copy as soon as it leaves the press; yet we have demands from every quarter for copies.”  In this state of want and anxiety, are fifty millions of our fellow-subjects.

I will now say no more upon the particular circumstances of this society.  All its statements, and the account of its proceedings from the beginning, are in the hands of many, and every one is requested and invited to examine its structure and operations.  It requires no other argument for its support, to a Christian mind, than the simple recital which its own reports unfold.  In those reports are the facts specified which I have been able so shortly to allude to; and there are the testimonials which have been given to the blessed effects of this society, from almost every nation, and language and tongue, and people!  There, is to be seen, pouring through this sacred channel, the homage of an admiring and grateful world, to the zeal, the piety, and the liberality of Britain! and there, may be seen, how many prayers are continually rising up in her behalf,—those prayers, which have success in heaven,—those prayers, which will I trust, bring upon our country the choicest blessings, and upon this society, which has caused these petitions, a growth which shall continually extend till all the kingdoms of the earth shall see the salvation of God.

Such is the society for which I beg to claim your support.  I would use every argument by which you might be most liberally affected towards it, for I know not of any public p. 14institution which has so purely and directly for its object the temporal and spiritual interests of mankind; I know of no institution where so large a sum can be so well used, and which no money can be well misused, whilst the simple object of the society is acted upon, viz. to circulate the word of God without note or comment.  I would then call upon you by every plea, according to your utmost ability, to give liberally towards the great purposes of this institution.  Only let us place ourselves in the situation of those millions who have not had the word of God given to them.  Let us suppose, that another nation were now deliberating whether the Bible should be sent to our shores; let us conceive that nation, now arguing whether some local attachment, some municipal regulation, some system of church-government, should not restrain its hands, when it had the power and disposition to give the Bible to Britain.  How should we, who value the word of God, who feel that we owe to it our pure religion, and all that is excellent in our manners, and all that is pre-eminent in our character; how should we bear from others those arguments about giving the Scriptures to ourselves, which we are compelled every day to hear, now that the case is reversed?  Would an argument of a Russian, for instance, satisfy us, that the Bible should not be given to England, because the Greek, and the Georgian, the Armenian, and Roman catholic churches, could not, without danger, unite in a public meeting?  Should we be satisfied, that England ought not to have the word of God, because a Roman catholic establishment might fear the prevalence of what it might call heresy?  As then we should say, what can be the evils arising from a meeting of Christians of all the Russian churches, in comparison of the sin of refusing the Bible to England? what would be the relative importance even of taking away an established church in another country, when the alternative is, that Britain should not have the word of God?  So let us now reason when we have the Bible, and a disposition has sprung up in this country to give it to all the world; so let us reason about our own hindrances in co-operating in this work, and the urgent calls of the world upon us, for the dissemination of the Scriptures.  We do not however give up our establishment, by distributing the word of p. 15God, we hope to strengthen and support it; we hold out the best test by which any church can be tried, and we shew our confidence that it is built upon a right foundation, and that therefore no enemy shall prevail against it.

Is there any one here, I may ask, who would willingly give up the effects of Christian principles upon his own happiness, or the value of Christian comfort to his own heart?  Is there any one here, who would consent to have no knowledge of the true God; no hope in Jesus Christ; never to witness again the peaceful joy of the sabbath; never to feel the consolation which the gospel affords; when it may teach us that afflictions are but the chastisements of a tender father; when it points out a hope concerning our departed friends, that our brother Lazarus, that our child, our parent, is not dead, but sleepeth?  If then we value these things so much ourselves, let us not seek to shut them out from others; but let us on the other hand, endeavour to disseminate them through the whole world.  Let us seek that every nation may experience, as we do, the blessings of religion, of peace, of a humble submission to a good government.  Let us give them the Bible, which is, I may say, the corner-stone of all that we can boast as a nation; and then they may be as wise, as happy, as pious, as useful, as we are.  O let the cries and tears of the heathen, let their wants and misery, let their ignorance and sin, come up before you! and let these prevail upon you, to open your hearts, and to supply them out of your abundance.  As you value your own souls, look upon those who, not having the Bible, are living without comfort, and dying without the consolations of the gospel.  Look upon them for they call upon you for help; neglect them not, for to have refused a cup of cold water, will not at the day of judgment be unaccounted for: grant them your support and your blessings, so shall you meet them with joy, when you with them, are called to receive your last eternal sentence.



Brightly and Childs, Printers, Bungay.


[6]  The sentiments of the late venerable Dr. Porteus, Lord Bishop of London, are thus delivered to the world, in great part as recorded by the bishop himself, in his life written by his relative, the Dean of Chester.

“A limitation thus absolute and unequivocal,” viz. “that the sole and exclusive object of the society should be the circulation of the Scriptures, and the Scriptures only, without note or comment,” removed from the Bishop’s mind all doubt and hesitation.  He saw instantly that a design of such magnitude, which aimed at nothing less than the dispersion of the Bible over every accessible part of the world, could only be accomplished by the association of men of all religious persuations.  He looked forward to great results from such a combination of effort.  He entertained the hope that it might operate as a bond of union between contending parties; and that by bringing them together in one point of vast moment, about which there could hardly be a diversity of opinion, it might gradually allay that bitterness of dispute, and put an end to those unhappy divisions which have so long tarnished the credit of the Christian world.  Whilst, therefore, he remained firmly attached to the original society, (for promoting Christian knowledge) whose exertions, as far as its limited sphere allowed, no one ever held in higher estimation, he gave at the same time the sanction of his name without scruple to the new one: and the more he considered its object, and the longer experience he had of the spirit ant principles on which it was conducted, the more deeply he was convinced that it merited all the support which the Church of England could give.

“It is now,” he observes in a passage which strongly marks his sentiments; “it is now well known and firmly established, and has completely triumphed over all the attempts made to destroy it.  None of those secret dark designs, none of those plots and conspiracies to subvert the establishment, and devour both the shepherds and their flocks, which were so confidently predicted by a certain set of men as the inevitable effect of this society, have yet been discovered in it.  It is in fact much better employed.  It goes on quietly and steadily, in the prosecution of its great object, and pays no sort of regard to the sneers and cavils of its intemperate opponents.”—In another passage, written at a still later date, he says, “that he cannot but add, in justice to this society, which has been so much opposed, misrepresented, and traduced, that all the important works in which it has been engaged have been carried on with the utmost harmony and unanimity; without any difference of opinion; without the slightest symptom of any hostile or treacherous design against the church; and without any other idea upon their minds but that of extending as widely as possible, the knowledge of the Christian Scriptures.”  The bishops of Durham and Salisbury attended several of their meetings, and were delighted with the decorum, calmness, and good temper with which their proceedings were conducted.  In short, all the apprehensions to which this society has given rise are now found to be but vain terrors; and all the prophecies of the mischief and evil, that would result from it, are falsified by facts.  It is rising uniformly in reputation and credit; gaining new accessions of strength and revenues and attaching to itself more and more the approbation and support of every real friend to the church and to religion.

[10] Extract of a speech made by the earl of Liverpool, on accepting the office of president, of the Cinque Ports’ Bible Society, Dec. 5th. 1815.

As a member of the Established Church, from education and habit, but much more so from consideration and conviction, he was particularly desirous of promoting its interests, to the utmost of his ability, under this impression he had recently appeared, on a public occasion, as a supporter of the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge.  He was anxious to extend the influences and advantages of that institution; but he saw no reason why he should not, at the same time, afford to the British and Foreign Bible Society every assistance in his power, and evince an equal anxiety to promote its success.  The objects of the two Societies were one—that of dispersing the uncorrupted word of God; and, as the means in each were pure, he should always consider it an honour to aid them, or any other society which had the same object in view, and was labouring to effect the same end—the dissemination of Christianity over the habitable globe.  His lordship was a friend to the Bible Society, because it would operate where, from national custom, or prevalence of different sentiments, the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge would not obtain admission.  The universality of the object proposed by the British and Foreign Bible Society, and its tendency to unite all Christians (however divided on subjects of minor concern) in the bonds of Christian sympathy and benevolence, gave it, in his lordship’s mind, a powerful claim to universal support.