Historical Champions

Francis W. Upham’s “Thoughts on the Holy Gospels” (part one)

Sitting atop one of my bookshelves is a collection of older works—some were treasures discovered at used bookstores and others were sought out. One of my favorites is a small hardback by Francis W. Upham, published in New York in 1881. This was almost 150 years ago! To put this into perspective, his father was born two years before the Declaration of Independence and Francis himself lived through the era of the Civil War.1 150 years is also roughly the amount of time which separates Irenaeus’s Against Heresies from the publication of Matthew’s Gospel. Anyway, I appreciate the history that this collection of books represents.

Here is how Upham begins his treatise, Thoughts on the Holy Gospels: How They Came to Be in Manner and Form as They Are:

A controversy concerning Christ Jesus is going on in all the fields of thought, in all the walks of life—and he that is not with Him is against Him. Everywhere there is confession or denial of the Eternal Word, who was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate. One of the many forms of this controversy is the worldwide debate concerning his written word. It began with other generations, and it may outlast generations yet unborn. Of this strife as to the Bible, the Gospels are the center; and there the Living Word, in the appointed time, will gain for His written word the battle that He cannot lose.

Francis W. Upham, Thoughts on the Holy Gospels: How They Came to Be in Manner and Form as They Are (New York, NY: Phillips & Hunt, 1881), 13.

Did I mention that this book was written at the start of the decade during which Charles Spurgeon, over in London, would wade into what he called “The Downgrade Controversy,” as he decried the abandonment of core doctrines, where the “first step astray is a want of adequate faith in the divine inspiration of the sacred Scriptures”?2 Indeed, the Scriptures were under attack throughout Christendom.

Upham continues:

Christ’s ever-existing Congregation, of its own knowledge and memory, affirms that St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John wrote the Gospels; and of its own spiritual consciousness it affirms that they were moved to write by the Holy Ghost. These affirmations should determine the judgment, and they do bind the conscience. It, then, may seem irreverent to inquire further into the construction of the holy Gospels; yet Christians are to “give a reason for the faith.” That reason must be somewhat adapted to the unbelief that makes it needful to give that reason; and it is the duty of Christians to answer proper questions concerning the time, the writers, and the inspiration of the Gospels. Yet such is the insolence of the challenge of infidels that it is hard to keep from treating it with the silence of contempt; for, making larger demands on credulity than pagan priestcraft ever made, they would have us believe the double wonder, that the ever-existing Congregation of the Lord knows nothing of her own records, and that of those records they know everything

Upham, Thoughts on the Holy Gospels, 13–14.

Does this not describe our present situation, when so many experts reject the testimony of the early church fathers concerning the origin of the Gospels?

One need be quick to seize upon what seems to them their argument, for capriciously, suddenly, and frequently it shifts its ground, moves its dates backward and forward, and changes its form. Just now what they have to say runs thus: The Gospels are later than the time of the disciples; their contradictions are many; their character, legendary and superstitious. The Epistles are the earliest Christian writings. Only four of the thirteen that pass for St. Paul’s (those to the Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans) are indisputably his. The disciples never thought of any written memorial of their Lord because they were looking for the end of the world. But time went on: pious imaginings of what Jesus might have said and might have done (sometimes enkindled by what the prophets were thought to have foretold) intermingled with what Jesus said and did; and at length, fragments of those traditions were gathered up and written out. These private memoranda were of no official or sacred character, and they were less valued than the common, unwritten tradition. Time went on, and more scrapbooks were made; they were more prized, and they grew in size. Then unknown hands, at unknown times, pasted together these fragments of things remembered and of things imagined, and—behold! an infidel miracle more astounding than any Christian miracle—they made two of the holy Gospels! … They say this haphazard gathering together of the sayings of Jesus and of sayings put into his lips was the earliest form of St. Matthew’s Gospel.

Upham, 14–15.

I will let this be the end of our exploration of Upham’s work for today. But here we recognize that many of the arguments advanced by those whom he characterized as infidels have indeed become the standard doctrinal position of many of our contemporary commentaries and New Testament introductory works. It is my hope that this web page and my recent book will offer a basis for pushing back against these standard perspectives.

We will further explore Upham’s concerns and arguments in future blog posts.

  1. For more information on Francis Upham’s family, refer to Daniel J. Noyes, Memoir of Nathaniel Gookin Upham, LL.D., 1871. ↩︎
  2. Robert Shindler, “The Down Grade: Second Article,” ed. Charles H. Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel, April 1887, 170. ↩︎

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