In publishing the letter of Elder J. G. Williams in a former, and that of Elder I. N. Vanmeter in the present number, on the subject of shaking of hands while engaged in the public worship of God, we feel called on to give our own views upon the subject. Our Lord said to the Jews, “In vain do ye worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” From this rebuke we infer that divine authority is indispensable to an acceptable worship of God. The authority of God, unmingled with the traditions of men, must be observed and obeyed in every act of devotion, whether it be singing, praying or preaching his word. God has given us a law to govern us in all things pertaining to our faith and practice, and we should take heed that we be not chargeable, as were the Jews, of making void God’s law by our own traditions, or innovations. God is not the author of confusion. He is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. This is his law; and that we may serve him acceptably, we must serve him with reverence and godly fear. “For our God is a consuming fire.”
On the subject of shaking of hands in time of preaching or singing as complained of by brother Williams, brother Vanmeter says: “Now the question to be settled is whether those thus acting are prompted by mere fleshly excitement and natural human sympathy, or, whether they do not feel a higher and holier love than that of the flesh, and a fellowship unknown to the world. And farther, whether the practice occasionally followed by perhaps three-fourths of the churches of the West and South, of giving the hand of fellowship while singing, is contrary to the spirit and letter of God’s word.”
With becoming deference to the judgment of brother Vanmeter, and the practice of churches in the South and West, we understand that other, and by far more weighty, questions are involved, which require to be settled before we can feel at liberty to either endorse or participate in the practice to which brother Williams has objected. In our mind, at least, some of these questions have very little to do in settling the question of the right or wrong of the practice. Brother Williams is not understood to express a doubt as to the sincerity, or piety, of those brethren, to whose practice he objects; and certainly if we did not believe that our brethren had higher and holier motives than such as are merely fleshly, or that they did not feel a fellowship which is unknown to the world, we would not waste our ink and paper in trying to point out the wrong; for then it would be like casting pearls before swine, who would trample them under their feet and turn again and rend us. The Methodists, and other Arminians, depend much on those practices to work on the passions of the people, and by shaking and clapping of hands, shouting, and a confusion of sounds, produce a Babel of excitement which they call religion; and we had hoped that such fleshly and impulsive demonstrations were principally confined to the Arminians. But, with us, the question to be settled is, are these antics enjoined upon the true worshipers oft e living God, by any precept or example found in his law? “To the Law, and to the Testimony.” If the law of Christ enjoins this sort of bodily exercise in worship, then not only three-fourths of the Baptists in the West and South, but all orderly Baptists everywhere are required to conform to it. And if on a careful examination we find that the law of Christ does not require it, we must conclude that there is no other authority than that of men; and we cannot teach the practice without teaching for doctrine the commandments of men, thereby proving that our worship is vain.
If it be said, it is not practiced as a command either of God or men, but in gratification of an impulsive feeling sanctioned by the practice of three-fourths of the churches, then are we not in our practice making void the law of Christ by our own traditions? Are we as worshipers of God at liberty to be governed by and yield obedience to our impulsive feelings, without regard to the divine rule? “His servants ye are to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey.” It is called an unimportant and harmless indulgence. May not the same plea be entered for any other unlawful indulgence of our feelings? We say unlawful, for if there be no law requiring it, it must be without law, and therefore unlawful. Can those who thus “indulge” (as brother Vanmeter uses this word) in the practice claim with the Apostolic saints, “We are the circumcision which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh”? Are we indeed convinced that the flesh profiteth nothing? Is it in this way of indulgence that we crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts?
The giving of the right hand of fellowship in an orderly manner, and on suitable occasions, was practiced by the apostles, but not while singing or preaching; and when it was given it was not to signify the unrestrained impulse of an individual, but it was to express the deliberate decision and fellowship of the whole church. We hope no brother on reflection will contend that these outbursts of passionate feelings which impel a person to interrupt the minister of Christ while delivering a message from God by shaking hands, is in conformity with the apostles’ manner of giving the right hand of fellowship. Where in this shall we find harmony with either the letter or spirit of the word? As we before said, if the practice be according to the letter and spirit of the word, then all the saints should practice it, and all who are led by the Spirit would; but if it is not required of all the saints, it is required of none. It is either required by the letter and spirit of the word or it is contrary to both, and should be rejected as an innovation.
Brother Vanmeter says: “If it is a weakness in those who sometimes feel the power of Christian fellowship so strong as to wish to manifest it to their brethren in this way, can you not, my dear brother, bear with the infirmity of the weak?”
It is rather begging the question to pronounce this impetuous torrent of feeling the power of Christian fellowship. Will not the power of Christian fellowship allow those who are under it to behave orderly in the house of God? Or do none feel and know that power but those whose animal passions are thus irrepressible? We do not say that those who have thus indulged feel not the power of Christian fellowship; but we dispute that this disorderly course expresses any such power; for the practice is by far more common in those synagogues of Satan where Christian fellowship was never known than in the assemblies of the saints of God. And the enthusiasms produced by the practice is about the same in the theatre, circus, ball-room, or meeting-house. It cannot therefore be claimed for it that it is a scriptural expression of the power of Christian fellowship. And as to our regarding it as a weakness and infirmity which stronger brethren are to bear with, this appeal is rendered the less potent by the fact disclosed by brother Vanmeter, that “some of the most able and firm defenders of the faith of God’s elect in the West and South have indulged in this practice,” including himself and perhaps three-fourths of the churches. The plea of weakness seems rather lame. Is it not to be feared that the weak and confiding are misled by those whom they regard as able and firm, and look up to as ensamples to the flock?
From our own personal observation for more than half a century, we know that multitudes have been drawn into our churches by such enthusiastic demonstrations as appeal to the sympathetic passions of the flesh, who when the paroxysm has abated have required the same kind of excitement to retain them in the churches. Not being born of the word they have no relish for the sincere milk of the word, but a constant lusting after fleshly excitement. Such children of excitement have always annoyed the children of the free woman by objecting to the solid doctrine of the gospel, for which they have no appetite, and are always ready to patronize such doctrine and practice as will please the flesh and swell their number.
We do not understand brother Williams to object to a friendly and brotherly recognition on meeting or separating, by a friendly grasp, or shaking of hands.
Brother Vanmeter says: “Some indulge in the kiss of charity.” For this they have apostolic precept and example, and to the practice we have no objection, provided they do not extend the indulgence beyond the apostolic rule. But let the practice be restricted to the decorum of gospel charity. Should the kissing indulgence be extended so far as to interrupt the public worship of God, and the brethren and sisters should feel impelled to kiss each other while singing, praying, or preaching, doubts might arise whether such impulsion were not induced by passion rather than by charity, which vaunteth not in iniquity.
We were sorry to learn through brother Vanmeter’s letter that there were any Baptists in the range of his knowledge who refuse to obey any command of our Lord Jesus Christ because commanded but once. Is it possible? Among all the delinquents we have ever met, we never met one who gave such a reason for their disobedience to the commands of Christ. We hope for the honor of the cause that the instances in his knowledge are but few.
Brother Vanmeter thinks the practice of shaking hands, for which he pleads, may be carried too far. But who is to decide to what extent any unauthorized, unscriptural practice may be carried with propriety? If the practice be good and right, let it go its whole length; if unlawful and evil, nip it in the bud.
Let no expression in the foregoing article be construed as uttered in disrespect or bitterness to brother Vanmeter, or the churches and brethren who differ with us on the subject of our discussion; for we write in sorrow and grief rather than in a censorious mood. Our own personal knowledge of what disorders and distresses have come into the church by adhering to fleshly passions and fleshly sympathies, makes us earnest in our appeals to those whom we love and esteem as the excellent ones of the earth, with whom is all our delight. We entreat them, in the words of the beloved disciple, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
December 1, 1867.
Elder Gilbert Beebe
Editorials Volume 7
Pages 105 – 109