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Columnists Remarkable Providences

1899 vs. 1999

1899 vs. 1999

As the calendar turns, a kiss is still a kiss

More of man's sin, more of God's grace. That's what we at WORLD expect to be reporting over the next year, the next decade, the next century. Unless Christ returns, we do not anticipate a radical change in the nature of man, made in God's image yet fallen. Expectations of many were different a century ago. Hopes were so high that the magazine known as Christian Oracle changed its name late in 1899 to Christian Century. The editors explained, "We believe that the coming century is to witness greater triumphs in Christianity than any previous century has ever witnessed, and that it is to be more truly Christian than any of its predecessors." At the Library of Congress I read through the issues from the last two months of 1899 and the first month of 1900, and saw a consistent optimism. Articles had titles along the order of "Why the World Is Becoming Better." Journalists wrote sentences such as these: "Statistics prove that the actual volume of righteousness compared with the population is greater than ever before and growing." The volume of righteousness purportedly was measurable, so writers had no doubt that "The sentiments of justice, liberty and love are stronger and more universal." Repeatedly, Christian Century editorialists argued that understandings developed in the past were no longer relevant: "A great breaking up, a spring thaw, is going on in the religious world.... Our 'old faiths' must be viewed in 'new lights.'... We can not pin our faith to Calvin or Luther, Wesley or Campbell. Much less can we pin our faith to old forms. The living, loving Christ alone is sufficient." Christian Century's egotism was enormous, because its writers claimed that "a new knowledge has come to humanity which has opened secrets of nature and history." Studies in human evolution and social processes were said to provide understanding that required reinterpretation of the Bible, since God was now most visible "in the great common places of life, in nature, in the long evolutionary process." God's statements in the Bible could not be taken as absolute truth, for only "an ignorant age can safely venture to be dogmatic." Christian Century's poetry in January, 1900, was pretty bad, but it followed the editorial line: Let all the clocks of time in loud accord

Intone the hour that marks the century's end.

Let all the eager earth on tip-toe stand

And watch the sunburst of a cycle new....

Your eyes behold the white light of a day,

Whose sheen in glory's mantle shall enwrap

The world, and golden years enfold in an

Unbroken round of sweet and happy peace.
Given how infrequently sweet and happy peace has dominated this century of war and mass executions, Christian Oracle would have been more oracular if it had changed its name to Murderous Century. But the secular press was just as optimistic a century ago. In December 1899, the nation's most-read newspaper, the New York Journal, proclaimed that during the 20th century every problem of "social misery and wrong" will be solved by those with "a genuine and earnest and passionate desire for the betterment of mankind." The Journal a century ago pointed out that a "new and absolutely unprecedented dominion over Nature provides man with the physical means for preparing a new earth, in which there shall be health and wealth, peace and plenty and prosperity." Man is taking dominion, but the Journal assumed that those who mastered nature would learn how to master themselves. That hasn't been the case. Another common Journal assumption of 1899 was that ministers would no longer have to preach with biblical toughness, for "man looks now to find the God within. We shall talk more of love, and less of sin." Looking back from 1999, it's clear that man most frequently has found not God but more of himself within, and that churches need, perhaps even more than a century ago, to teach how God hates sin. The 1900s did witness an expansion of Christianity in many parts of what became known as the Third World, and a contraction of it in western Europe and the United States. But overall, the 60-year-old song from the movie Casablanca is a good one to keep in mind when we hear grand predictions: "A kiss is still a kiss, a smile is still a smile, the fundamental things apply, as time goes by." The fundamental thing for all of us to remember is what J.I. Packer, echoing Paul, summed up in three words: God saves sinners. God does it. He does not help those who help themselves; we are helplessly dead in our sins. He finds us and saves us. Thanks be to God.