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        Thomas Dove's Letter to the Tasmanian Presbyterian Magazine


Thomas Dove (c. 1802-1882) was a minister of the Gospel in Tasmania, Australia. On graduating from Glasgow University he migrated to Tasmania in 1836, where he laboured variously in Hobart, the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island (at the Governor's request), the penal colony on Maria Island and for a long period among scattered rural populations as a "bush minister". When working among the Tasmanian Aborigines he toiled arduously to reduce their language to writing but the people had been transplanted from their native homes, and "notwithstanding every care, they melted away like snow before the sun". His work among the convicts was "full of hope" and issued in good results, and throughout his ministry he was marked for his earnest missionary spirit in bringing the Gospel of the grace of God to sinners. Gentle as a lamb and yet a man of strong convictions, he held tenaciously to the "faith once delivered to the saints" (expressed in the standards of the Presbyterian Church of Tasmania – the Westminster Standards); and he resisted with vigour the encroaching liberalism of the times.



Swansea [Tasmania], 20th May, 1879.




     SIR, In the last number of your Magazine there is inserted, as likely to be read with interest by not a few in the colony, the farewell discourse of Dr. Service on his departure from Inch. Not a hint is given by the Editor of its being else than a trustworthy exposition of the way of safety and peace, as set before us in the Word of Truth. That no such caveat has been lodged is a matter of astonishment and regret to many of your readers, inasmuch as it bears the aspect of our Magazine having come to lend itself to the propagandism of a school of thought which would reduce the Bible and its distinctive teachings to a thing of nought. There is not simply throughout the whole discourse referred to an utter ignoring of man as a sinner, and as standing in need of a redemption which is to be found only in Christ Jesus and through faith in His blood – this is, no doubt, deplorable lack – but worse a great deal remains behind. Not only is the "Sal evangelicum" wholly thrust away – it is alluded to with hauteur and scorn. To speak of heaven and of hell, or to beseech an entrance into the heart of carnalism and folly "by the terrors of the Lord" is said to be ranting. And yet where else are utterances of this fearful type more frequently and more unreservedly to be found than in the discourses of Him who is the fountain of mercy and love, as well as of truth? In the writings of Paul, also, and of the other Apostles of our Lord, there bursts upon us ever and anon references to a coming day of judgment and to its tremendous and irreversible issues. Shall the spiritual watchman, therefore, who frames his expostulations and warnings by such models as those be characterised as a dotard or a ranter, when he calls upon his every hearer to "flee from the wrath to come?" Such a mode of speech in regard to points so solemn and momentous, can surely never come to be endured, far less to be virtually countersigned by a Magazine which is held to be the organ of our Presbyterian Church. 


Returning to the discourse, which is given at so much length, and which I have read with sadness and pain, I bring against it deliberately the charge of not merely keeping out of view the doctrines of the Cross, but of levelling a shaft against all that is precious and distinctive in Christianity as a religious system. Let the code of ethics, which Dr. Service is at pains to lay before us, be accepted as comprising all that is worthy of high regard in Christianity, and it will be impossible to account for its having been ushered into the world amidst such mighty signs and wonders as are narrated in the pages of the New Testament. Why, if it would only have us "look for all good worth the name within ourselves," as if its main teaching be that there is a better nature within us if we would but allow it to develop itself, then its claims to be not only the chief, but the exclusive guide to honour and bliss eternal, must fall to the ground. In the moral deliverances which are given us here, and in the motives by which they are urged, there is scarcely an advance on what had been submitted to the world long ago by Confucius and the Philosophers of the Porch as embodying the whole duty of man.


Dr. S. is indeed kind enough to tell us that he will not take it upon himself to predict the hastening on of a day in which Christianity (as a theological system at least) will be felt to have done its work, and when it may be quietly laid on the shelf. His words are: "I don't say that the Christianity of the New Testament is ever to be superseded." There is something almost amusing in these words could we but stifle the grief and heaviness of heart which the reading of them calls up. Thank you, Dr. S. (we are almost inclined to say) for the modicum of comfort which you thus allow us; but we beg to assure you that (be the case with yourself, and the school to which you belong what it may) we have no doubts, and are free from all alarm whatever on the point. We know, and are sure (because it rests upon authority which cannot lie), that the "Word of God, which through the Gospel is preached unto us, liveth and abideth for ever." We are firmly persuaded that the "stone" which was beheld in prophecy as cut out of "the mountain" is no other than what is called in the "Gospels" the "kingdom of heaven," or Christianity in its pure and unadulterated shape, as preached by our Lord and His Apostles, and that it is destined to become a great mountain, and to fill (to the displacement of all thrones and dynasties and systems else) the whole earth. Our hope is steadfast that the sovereignty of the world shall be given to Jesus Christ our Lord, and that all nations shall love Him. We are thoroughly convinced that there will never be a period of time in which thousands and tens of thousands will not be heard protesting in reference to the great Prophet of the New Testament, "To whom can we go but to Thee," for "Thou hast the words of eternal life; and we believe and are sure that Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God."


But let the pruning-knife on which Dr. S. and his school have laid hold be freely applied to the lopping away of all that is accounted by them to be mere drapery and Orientalism in the page of Scripture, and the residuum which they are pleased to leave behind may well be suffered to whither and die, inasmuch as it had nothing to fill the sinner with dread, or to charm the awakened conscience into holy amazement and peace. What is presented to us here as the religion of the New Testament, when it has passed through the alembic of their relentless criticism? Why, it is rationalised, or improved (as they would have it), out of all affinity with the Gospel of the grace of God, as it comes to us from the mouth of our Lord and His Apostles. Instead of every eye being directed to the "Lamb of God" as having "borne our sins in His own body on the tree;" instead of our being called upon to hear the voice of our great Prophet and Redeemer saying, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life," "No man cometh unto the Father but by me," we are told of it as just bidding us to keep busily at the work of developing more and more the good, and the beautiful, and the benign, which dwells within us, and which is ready to start forth into outward manifestation, if we would but give it fair play. Christianity is said to be little else than a bringing of the rod of counsel and encouragement so to strike the fountain of our hearts, that the waters of spiritual health, and dignity, and sweetness, which are stored up there, may straightway flow out. The roots of true nobility and of every virtue are said to be found within us; and, as for the religion of the Bible, it is only worthy of holding its place in the world, as enforcing upon us the giving of free scope and exercise to them. 


Adverting to the morality which is here inculcated upon us, is it not of a somewhat vague, and sickly, and puerile cast? There is nothing here of repentance towards God, or of faith towards the Lord Jesus Christ. These are topics which may be expected to be tabooed by such as "cannot forget that this is the nineteenth century in which they live;" but really might not some deference to "the things which belong to God" have been looked for in a code of ethics as issuing from a preacher of the gospel, rather than what meets our eye in the discourse before us? As for the virtues which he is pleased to extol there is a sad lack of the heroic and the consistent about them. We are exhorted, indeed, to cultivate "manliness and self-respect;" but then the exhortation is followed up by a stern philippic against the deadly sin of daring to think for ourselves, or of refusing to put a curb on our right of challenging the worth and authority of what is here presented to us as the quintessence of the gospel. There is a strange mixture of the bland and the magisterial in the teachings of Dr. S. and his school. Let us only be good boys, and accept of their platitudes with all meekness and docility, and they will speak to us nought but comfort – nay, will embolden us to cast away all fears of a reckoning to come. Their creed is that "hell is narrow, and that heaven is wide," and in the face of many a text of holy writ to the contrary, that we are warranted to "hope for good as the end of all things for all." But let us call in question their authority, so to deal with the Scriptures of truth; let us hazard it as a conjecture that the charge of attempting to foist upon us a shameful travesty of Christianity lies at their door, and not at the door of evangelism; then their looks are a thunder-cloud, and their words are daggers. They would have us to know that they are, par excellence, the men, and that "wisdom," as it has originated, is likely to "die, with them." And, then, there is a whining about the seemliness and the work of peace, be the cost at which it is purchased and upheld what it may. And what is peace in their vocabulary? Why, it is nothing else than a recognition of their claims to sit in "Moses' chair," and to hold undisputed sway in the realms of theology and ethics. To enter a protest against their bald and somewhat infantine code of morals, as embodying the pith and genius of Christianity, is said to be that hateful thing, Sectarianism, in bud; and they would scowl it down at once as an outrage on love and the very fitness of things.


As far as harbouring a doubt of their being wholly, or even at all, in the right as exponents of the Gospel of grace, why, they are kind enough to tell us that this may be allowable; but then they urge it as incumbent on us to give no expression to such a doubt. They would have us to stifle and repress it, as if "ashamed of its very existence" within our breasts. To disturb them in their work of destructive criticism, and to spring up to the rescue of our sacred oracles from misrepresentation and havoc at their hands – this would be, in their estimate, a very vile and unbecoming thing. Such a course of action, they tell us, is not to be thought of without horror. The harshest terms of their otherwise bland and mellifluous vocabulary are exhausted upon it. To use their own words, it would go to prove that "we hate love, and that we love hatred."


Away with such mawkishness and hauteur! We cannot forget that peace and truth are ever combined together in the sacred page, and that we are warned against calling evil good, and accounting darkness to be light. It is sheer pusillanimity – an abnegation of what constitutes our highest glory and our inalienable right – which is here urged upon us under the guise of following after peace. We tell these soi-disant masters in our Israel that we have not so learned Christ, and that we cannot at their bidding forego to assert the liberty wherewith He has made us free. We have the authority of the primitive heralds and ambassadors of peace (in the proper sense of the term) on our side when we "take heed not to be deceived by vain words," come from what quarter they may; when we "try the spirits, whether they be of God;" when we "search the Scriptures" daily, to examine whether the matters which are submitted to our faith be in harmony with them or no; when we cleave to the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, and pant after "the sincere milk of the Word, that we may grow thereby."


There are several other points in the discourse more calculated to betray than to defend the citadel of our faith, on which a few comments might have been offered.


In the usual phraseology of his school, Dr. S. tells us that "people ask now, and will go on asking more than ever – not is this or that line of conduct in accordance with what is written somewhere in Scripture, but how does it square with the best and highest revealed to the spirit of man up till the present moment?" In other words, he would have us to believe that our age has outgrown, in direct enlightenment from within, all need of reference to what is written in the law and the gospel of the New Testament. Instead of drawing water from the outward "wells of salvation," we are told that men will henceforth drink health, and guidance, and joy from the better-replenished cisterns of their own hearts. A few questions are then put into the mouth of a representative of the advanced school of thought as a specimen, we presume, of the mode in which the new oracle will be consulted, and of the grand utterances which is it expected to yield. As to the questions which are here propounded, is it not felt that they savour more of frippery and self-conceit than of the grave, the masculine, and the sober? They can drop only from the lips of such as dwell at ease, and have no high or worthy aim in view. These are not the yearnings of humanity in its hours of deep and serious thought. It is then driven out of itself, and pants after the clear and well-attested light which comes from above. Let the voice of conscience be heard, let the "plague of our hearts" be revealed to us, let us but taste the "powers of the world to come" – and the questions which spring up to the foreground are such as have found, and will never cease to find, expression in such burning words as these: – "What shall I do that I may be saved?" "How shall I be able to stand in the day of wrath?" And nothing, we are bold to aver, will ever bring repose and joy to the aching heart from which they flow, but a grasping, by faith, of Him who says, "Come unto Me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." It is only the trifler, the witling, the self-conceited Pharisee that turns away, in any age, from the "balm of Gilead," and thinks lightly of the Physician who is revealed to us in the word of truth.


Dr. S. is constrained to allow that something more (and, it may be, of a diverse type) is to be found in the New Testament than is embraced within his syllabus of what is mainly, and even at all, entitled to high regard. Mark, however, the words in which he refers to the amount and the quality of what he is pleased to thrust aside. "There are other things," he says, "of which one may have found (the italics are ours) mention in the Bible." But, in comparison with the teachings of his school, they are described as little else than "mint, and anise, and cummin." One may find mention of these some other things in the Bible! Why, Dr. S. knows that they constitute, at least, nine-tenths of the New Testament. They stare the reader everywhere in the face. They pervade the discourses and parables of our Lord. The entire Gospel of John, the whole of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the greater part, by far, of the Epistles to the Churches of Rome, and Galatia, and Ephesus are devoted to the setting forth and enforcement of them. There is not a book – nay, scarcely a page – of the New Testament in which they are not alluded to, and pressed with all urgency on our regard and faith. As to the comparative worth which is attached to these "some other things" by Dr. S. and his school, we stand aghast at their being rated as but "mint, and anise, and cummin." And yet, the things which are so libelled are just such as find prominence and are emphasised in the conversation of our Lord with Nicodemus, as, also, in the discourses of Peter on the day of Pentecost, and, again, in the house of Cornelius, the centurion, and as form the main features of the Gospel which dropped from the lips of Paul.


Passing away from the description which Dr. S. is pleased to give us of the evangelistic style of preaching, and of its miserable fruits (a mode of putting the case of which we will only say that it is an outrage on decency, and wholly at variance with fact), we would warn our every reader against being lulled into deceitful repose by the syren notes which are here sounded in his ear. As for the bearings of the life that now is upon the retributory scene of things towards which we are hastening, let him accept of them as placed before him, in terms the most emphatic and solemn, in the page of truth. Let him meditate alike on the "goodness and severity of God." As warned by our Lord himself, let us stand in awe of Him "who is able to cast both soul and body into hell." Let us be assured that true wisdom lies in our taking care that, "a promise being left us of entering into His rest," we "come not short of it" through unbelief or sloth, inasmuch as it is "a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Let ours be the aim and the solicitude of the Apostle of the Gentiles, even that "we may win Christ, and be found in Him" on the great day, clothed – not with our own righteousness, "but with the righteousness which is of God by faith;" and, having fled for refuge to the hope which is set before us in the Gospel, let us make it manifest that the more simple and exclusive is our reliance on Christ as a Saviour, and the more deeply felt our need of the "anointing" which cometh from above, just the more strenuous and habitual is our concern to "purify ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit, and to perfect holiness in the fear of God."      


                                                                                     T. D.




“The Tasmanian Presbyterian Magazine & Missionary Record”, Hobart, June 2, 1879.