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William B. Sprague

[William B. Sprague (1795-1876) preached the following sermon, entitled, “The Danger of Being Over Wise” from the pulpit of Second Presbyterian Church in Albany on June 7, 1835, after which it was published. His text is Ecclesiastes 7:16. His sermon is of interest for at least four reasons. First, Sprague repeatedly calls the exclusion of real wine from the Lord’s Supper an “innovation” and even an “unhallowed innovation.” Second, Sprague tells us that he was very sympathetic to the temperance movement, so his judgement is unclouded by any bias against it. Third, Sprague’s words are evidence that the influence of the temperance movement is the reason that wine was being excluded from the Lord’s Supper in his day. Fourth, Sprague helps us to see that the use of grape juice is rooted in the sinful tendency to be “overwise;” instead of simply accepting the institution of Jesus with a child-like faith, men have tried to change the sacrament to suit their own conceits. The complete sermon was reprinted by Naphtali Press in 1997, and can be found there. The reprint by Naphtali Press contains important additional material, including Sprague’s answer to the essay by Moses Stuart that is on the next page of this web site. What follows below has been heavily edited for the sake of brevity.]

Neither make thyself over-wise: Why shouldest thou destroy thyself?

There is no quality which is more frequently commended in the sacred scriptures than wisdom. It is represented as emphatically the wealth of the immortal mind; the fountain of peace and joy; the seed of whatever can dignify the character, or elevate the destiny of man. He who has this treasure in the scriptural sense of the word has life; has all needful good in the life that now is, all conceivable good in the life that is to come.

But if this be so, you will ask, perhaps, whether the language of my text, and the general tenor of scripture, are quite consistent with each other; or rather whether they do not involve an absolute contradiction. I answer, they are entirely consistent; for it is genuine wisdom which the scripture everywhere enjoins; it is the affectation of wisdom which the wise man in our text so pointedly condemns…Be not wise above that which is written. Be not so wise as to attempt to make things plain which God in his wisdom has seen best left obscure; or to make things appear absurd which God has been pleased to reveal as matters of faith; or to abate a single particle from the strictness of God’s truth, or to mar in the least degree the purity of his institutions. “For why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” Why, by setting up your wisdom against the wisdom of the Highest, by walking in the rush light of your own reason, rather than in the sun light of his testimonies — why should you bring upon yourself evil, the depth of which you have no line to fathom?

The text will naturally lead me to mention some instances in which men make themselves over-wise, and as I pass along, to rebuke the indulgence of this wayward spirit.

Men make themselves over-wise in their manner of treating God’s truth, and God’s institutions.

Let me illustrate this branch of my subject by one or two particulars….

Another way in which men make themselves over-wise on this subject is by modifying the ordinance to suit their own views; especially by inculcating the doctrine, or adopting the practice, of dispensing with the appropriate elements, or of substituting something in place of them, which the scripture does not warrant; or to come fully to the point which I now have more particularly in view, and on which the movements of the present day will not allow me any longer to be silent — THE EXCLUSION OF WINE FROM THE LORD’S SUPPER….

In the first place, there are several churches in different parts of the country, which, if I am correctly informed, have actually adopted the measure, and are of course strongly committed to its defense and extension. In the next place, there are in many of our churches, individuals who suffer the cup to pass them in the communion service, on the ground that they believe the use of wine, even on that occasion, to be sinful. And then there are periodicals extensively circulated, lending their influence, in a greater or less degree, to this unhallowed innovation….

Another professor … has written an essay for publication, in which he endeavors to show that neither bread nor wine is essential to the acceptable observance of the Lord’s Supper; and that the Temperance cause cannot advance much farther until the use of wine is abolished from this ordinance.

Men who, a year ago, felt nothing but shuddering when it was introduced, have come now to speak of it with timid caution, as if they were speaking on an unsettled question, upon which it were wise not fully to commit themselves; while some of them actually half adopt the principle, and others show that scarcely any of their former scruples now remain. And wherefore is this change? It is because the subject has gradually become familiar to them; and while the current in favor of this innovation has been imperceptibly becoming stronger, no effort has been made to resist it; and even ministers of the gospel have been silent, because they have apprehended no serious danger, or possibly because they have feared to sound the alarm, lest it should subject them to the charge of being hostile to one of the best of causes; and hence these individuals, by a process which they themselves can hardly analyze, and for reasons of which they can give little account, have been brought to their present posture of indecision at least, if not of actually favoring the views which, not long ago, they regarded with horror.

And here you have my reason for bringing this subject before you today. It is not that I believe that any of you are prepared to banish wine from the communion. I am not conscious that there is an individual before me, who would not be disposed to resist such a measure. But then I know that the whole history of the Church shows that such innovations come in by little and little. And though you may now be right — fully right on this subject, yet it supposes nothing worse of you than that you partake of human nature, to take for granted the possibility of your becoming wrong. And it is with a view to prevent evil that I give you this timely warning.

Be not deceived by the parade of Oriental learning on this subject. Remember that no authority is worth a rush, that contradicts the plain declarations of Christ and his apostles, as they are found in the New Testament. And I ask how the blessed Founder of our religion — a religion designed for common people who can only judge the meaning of scripture, by the principles of common sense — I ask how it was possible that he should have instituted this ordinance to be observed in the Church forever, and spoken of the fruit of the vine, and nothing else, as one of the elements, if, after all, he meant wine and water, or tamarind water, or molasses and water, or anything else than that which his words properly and exclusively indicate. I say, brethren, you have no occasion for Hebrew learning, or Arabic learning, than plain English, to settle this question. The Master himself has settled it; has settled it for the obscurest peasant as truly as for the most eminent biblical critic. And no man, no body of men, has a right to call in question the Master’s decision. I have heard the practice of the Church in the second century appealed to in justification of this usage. But if the authority of the second century is good, surely that of the first is better. And why not go a little farther back, and take advantage of that? And if the testimony of uninspired men on this subject is good, the testimony of those who were inspired is better. Why not then be satisfied with simply opening God’s word, and ascertaining what is there written on this subject? Ah, it is because God’s word says not a word about any other element to be used as drink in this ordinance, but the fruit of the vine.

Does anyone say what harm, after all, can result from the agitation of this subject in our churches, or even from the substitution of water for wine at the Lord’s table? Will it not be the same thing, it may be asked, when the first shock occasioned by the innovation is over; and may not the ordinance be celebrated with greater safety, and equal acceptableness? I answer, if wine is not essential to the celebration of the communion, by the very conditions of the ordinance, I know not what is. I would answer again, the very same spirit which would banish wine from the Lord’s table, would banish the other element — would annihilate the ordinance itself; and hence my respected friend, the professor, tells us that neither bread nor wine is essential to the acceptable celebration of the Lord’s Supper; and hence another individual with whom I have conversed, more than intimated his willingness to have the ordinance entirely abandoned, rather than it should stand in the way of the cause of Temperance.

There is another reason why I cannot be silent on this subject — it is, that by remaining so, I am a stumbling block in the way of multitudes of my fellow Christians, who are looking to the ministers of Christ for warning when the doctrines or the institutions of religion are in danger. In the course of the last week, a highly intelligent and active Christian in the city of New York, whose name is well known in the walks of public benevolence, said to me — and he said it with a degree of emotion which he struggled in vain to suppress — “Sir, nothing has occurred since I indulged a hope that I was a disciple of Christ, which has operated so powerfully as a temptation to believe that all religion is a miserable delusion, as the fact that grave ministers of the gospel are trying to remodel, and in effect blot out, that ordinance in which I have been accustomed to celebrate my Redeemer’s death; in connection with the equally astounding fact, that no one of you, who are set for the defense of the gospel, has ventured to open his lips in public to arrest the progress of this impious fanaticism.”

Yet another reason, my friends, for bringing this subject before you: the infidel is casting upon this movement a look of self-complacent triumph. He is beginning to boast that we are getting rid of Christianity by piece-meal; and the signs of the times indicate to him, that under the wonder working hand of modern theological refinement, both the doctrines and institutions of the gospel will gradually be frittered away, until his creed becomes our creed, and his hope becomes our hope. Is it worthwhile for Christians, by tampering with the ordinances of Christ, to give occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme?

I cannot forbear to say too, that this innovation is a deep stab to the comfort of Christians in the commemoration of their Savior’s dying love. When I come to the communion table, and administer or receive the sacramental cup, I wish to think of my Redeemer and his death, and the hopes and blessings which I enjoy through him. I wish not to have my mind distracted by having the question forced upon me, whether I am not committing a sin by taking into my lips a drop of wine; and I hesitate not to say, that they who have taken the lead in this effort, who are urging either from the pulpit, or the press, or even in a more private way, the expediency of banishing wine from the holy Supper, are responsible in a great degree for these painful associations by which our communion is embarrassed and embittered; are responsible for imposing upon many a weak conscience a load which renders the approach to the Lord’s table anything else than a cheerful and joyful and profitable occasion.

Brethren, I am sure I need not tell you that, in expressing my views so plainly on this subject, I have taken counsel of anything else rather than my feelings. For most gladly would I have been silent, if I could have reconciled such a course with my convictions of duty as a minister of Jesus Christ. I have witnessed too much of the operations of human nature not to know that he who ventures to oppose extravagance, when it is in any way connected with a good cause, does it at the peril of being set down as an enemy to that cause. I cannot forget that my own experience, since I have been among you, has proved that a man who takes it upon himself to rebuke the spirit of fanaticism in revivals of religion, must be expected to have his name blazoned on the list of the enemies of revivals; and most fully do I expect that the remarks which I have now made, will be appealed to, not by you, but by others, to justify the charge against me of being a foe to the cause of Temperance. I say not by you, my friends; but even if it were otherwise, and I knew that every one of you would join in this charge — much as I value your good opinion (and there is nothing that I value more, except the approbation of my conscience and my God) — I should still feel myself constrained to protest without a qualifying or softening word, against this unhallowed invasion of one of God’s institutions.

But I am not a foe to the cause of Temperance; with religious indignation I repel the charge. I regard it as having come into existence under the special favor of Heaven. I honor it as a noble part of that moral machinery designed to help forward the world’s renovation. I look upon those who have labored in it faithfully and diligently as the benefactors of their race; and I would still bid them God speed in the good enterprise, and invoke the smiles of Heaven on every effort which they put forth in the spirit of charity and of a sound mind. But if the Temperance cause claims a precedence of the institutions of God, then I insist that it claims too much. If it cannot go forward but at the expense of perverting or annihilating an ordinance or our religion, then I insist that it is high time it should come to a solemn pause; and I say unhesitatingly, perish the hand — no matter what hand it be — that would profanely withdraw from the Supper either of the memorials of my Redeemer’s death! Let God’s institutions stand in their own simple majesty, though the noblest fabric which man ever built should be prostrate in the dust.

Brethren, whatever you may think of the freedom of these remarks now, I verily believe the day will come when every one of you will be satisfied that I have been pleading in behalf of the Temperance cause; for after all that I have said, God’s institutions will live, and whatever arrays itself against them, will come to naught. I counsel you then, as friends of Temperance, to beware how you even seem to sanction this innovation. For, rely on it, God will not smile on any effort that goes to impugn his authority, though it be professedly made for the advancement of his honor; and even if it seems to succeed, it will be found ultimately to have concealed in it the principle of self-destruction. Let the Temperance cause be kept upon its own proper ground, and within its own legitimate limits, and God’s blessing will be in it; and the blessing of many ready to perish will come upon it; and new and ardent friends from every side will cluster around it; and its triumphs will not only be gratefully celebrated on earth, but we may reasonably believe will swell the anthems of Heaven. But let it attempt to rise on the ruin of God’s institutions, and I forewarn you that the days of its heaviness and mourning are at hand; and it will be well if we do not have occasion to go weeping to the grave where it is entombed, and in the bitterness of our spirits to ask concerning it, “Can these dry bones live?”