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My Religious Experiences

In previous chapters I have made allusions to my contact with Sunday schools and churches. I feel that the youth of today, more than at any other time in the world's history, needs to know something about what their parents and teachers have found in religion. To my mind religion, using the term in its generic sense, is fundamental in the life of civilized man. I make no reference to any particular church or creed. Broadly speaking, man's attitude toward the universe constitutes the basic idea of religion. Father and mother stood outside the pale of the church and thrust upon their children no religious dogma. Both felt kindly toward the teachings of the Bible, especially the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.

In my childhood I was taught the crudest forms of religious superstition by Sunday school teachers who were ignorant and superstitious. They entertained a creed foreign to the teachings of the Bible, which they used to fortify their dogmas. I committed to memory an assigned number of Scripture verses and in the class recitation said them aloud to the teacher. The members of the class asked no questions. I do not recall having gained the slightest inspiration from a single lesson. Not infrequently the Sunday school superintendent was a preacher from a neighboring village. This afforded him an opportunity to preach a sermon.

The theology of my boyhood days was of a lurid type. Eternal punishment, the divine inspiration of the Bible, the atonement, and so forth, were preached with a vengeance. The creed was essentially the same as that which is upheld by the fundamentalists of today. This denomination emphasized one tenet and that denomination another tenet.

Father always attended every funeral in his neighborhood. Mother usually remained at home because of her home duties. Again and again I have heard my mother ask my father on his return, this question, "Did the preacher send our neighborhood to hell or to heaven?" If the deceased was a member of a church, he was enrolled for heaven. If he had never made a profession of religion, he was consigned to hell. The preachers of fifty years ago had the courage of their convictions.

From time to time I attended what was called a religious revival. I enjoyed the excitement although I cannot discover that I was in any way benefited.

When I was twenty years of age I came into contact with Charles Brigham, Unitarian minister at Ann Arbor, Michigan. He introduced me to the writings of Channing, James Freeman Clark, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. His preaching was neither destructive nor dogmatic. He believed that God intended that man should use his reason in his search for truth. In this particular year I read in the university library Herbert Spencer's "First Principles". Mr. Brigham recognized God's revelation in the sciences. Without any special effort, I became an enthusiastic evolutionist.

In after years I read both orthodox and heterodox books. For more than forty years I have been an omnivorous reader of philosophy and science. I am aware that philosophers have not agreed upon a standardized philosophy. So long as philosophers and scientists are honest they cannot be expected to agree in all of their views. It is not desirable that they should.

If the reader is a church member he is eager to ask the question, "Mr. Ferris, do you accept the Bible as the word of God?" I do accept the Bible as containing the word of God. Please notice the wording of my answer. It is not evasive; it is clear and to the point. The Bible is not one book written by one author at one time for one specific purpose. It consists of sixty-six books written sometimes in the form of poetry, sometimes in prose, by men differing widely in vision. The churches have gone to this great storehouse for their creeds and doctrines. In the world we have more than one hundred sixty different denominations, all of them pointing the way to eternal happiness. If the Bible is God's word in the literal sense that these churches maintain, why so may creeds? The book must be difficult to understand; difficult to interpret. Evidently human reason "falls down".

I am not greatly concerned over the present conflict between the fundamentalists and modernists. The modernists are contesting the meaning of the creed or rather they deny the fundamentalists have correctly interpreted the Bible.

This church has inconclusive evidence of the failure of modern religion. Thousands of religious souls cannot conscientiously join an orthodox church. In the churches today thousands who attend regularly do not in their hearts accept the beliefs of the fundamentalists. They remain in the church for the social benefits.

Once more I am asked, "Do you believe the Bible?"

Again I answer: "I believe the Bible is the greatest collection of sacred writings in the world, and that these writings contain the word of God." If you turn to the essentials of Christ's teachings you have little difficulty in finding the way of life.

Another question arises? "Do you believe that Christ is God?" I invite your attention to his own answer, He is not God. He gave to the world a godly life, a life that will inspire seekers after God to the last day of civilization on this earth. The problem is to make every man's life divine.

Mr. William Jennings Bryan, like all the other fundamentalists, fails to find the Divine in natural laws, consequently he repudiates evolution. I admit that evolutionists have made many blunders. They have frequently formulated their own creeds and dogmas. Quite on a par with those of the orthodox churches. After all, there is one all-important purpose on the part of scientists which is to seek the truth regardless of the consequences. This quest for the truth is not fatal to an invigorating religion. The physicist has abandoned his worship of atoms and gone into a more ethereal realm.

For me the established laws of nature are divine, in precisely the same sense that Christ's teachings are divine. Why not learn the lessons of life from all of the books, the Bible, the world's great literature, and the revelations of science. I am not describing a new theology! I am simply pleading for a rational religion.

The writer to whom I am most indebted is Octavius Brooks Frothingham. He was a New England Unitarian who gradually discarded the orthodoxy of his own church. For twenty years he lectured in New York City every Sunday morning to an audience composed of independents, men and women from different church denominations who sought intellectual and religious freedom. The Putnams of New York City published these sermons up to the time he closed his work in that city. If I ever become financially able, I shall make a selection from these discourses and republish them. Frothingham did a great work for liberal religion for enduring religion.

In my judgment there has never been a time in the history of the world when men and women were so eager in their search for religious truth.

I have the kindliest feeling for every church that is actually advancing the kingdom of God and the reign of world peace. I have all my life advocated the teachings of the Carpenter.

Frequently I have been asked, "Are you a Christian?" My answer has been, "I do not know." Most persons asking this question entertain theological notions of what constitutes a Christian. If an intelligent person cannot, by observing your conduct, your daily life, determine whether you are a Christian or not, he would utterly fail to understand any ordinary answer.

My relation to the universe is, for me, an all-important affair. My faith in the forces that make for righteousness is thoroughly grounded. I make no attempt to solve all of the problems that any one day presents. I shall never cease growing. I am ever searching for truth. I feel confident that this is the noblest attitude a human being can take.