From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia
PRIVATE RIGHTS AND OBLIGATIONS.
To division which has commonly been made of the private obligations of man, into those which respect himself, his neighbour, and his Creator, does not appear to be attended with any considerable advantages. These several obligations are indeed so involved the one with the other, that there are few personal duties which are not also in some degree relative, and there are no duties, either relative or personal, which may not be regarded as duties to God. The suicide’s or the drunkard’s vice injures his family or his friends: for every offence against morality is an injury to ourselves, and a violation of the duties which we owe to Him whose law is the foundation of morality. Neglecting, therefore these minuter distinctions, we observe those only which separate the private from the political obligations of mankind.
OF the two classes of Religious Obligations,—that which respects the exercise of piety towards God, and that which respects visible testimonials of our reverence and devotion, the business of a work like this is principally with the latter. Yet at the risk of, being charged with deviating from this proper business, I would adventure a few paragraphs respecting devotion of mind.
That the worship of our Father who is in heaven consists, not in assembling1 with others at an appointed place and hour, not in joining in the rituals of a Christian church, or in performing ceremonies, or in participating of sacraments,2 all men will agree; because all men know that these things may be done while the mind is wholly intent upon other affairs, and even without any belief in the existence of God. “Two attendances upon public worship is a form complied with by thousands, who never kept a Sabbath in their lives.”3 Devotion, it is evident, is an operation of the mind; the sincere aspiration of a dependent and grateful being to Him who has all power both in heaven and in earth: and as the exercise of a devotion is not necessarily dependent upon external circumstances,4 it may be maintained in solitude or in society, in the place appropriated to worship or in the field, in the hour of business or of quietude and rest. Even under a less spiritual dispensation of old, a good man “worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.”
Now it is to be feared that some persons, who acknowledge that devotion is a mental exercise, impose upon themselves some feelings as devotional which are wholly foreign to the worship of God. There is a sort of spurious devotion,—feelings having the resemblance of worship, but not possessing its nature, and not producing its effects. “Devotion,” says Blair, “is a powerful principle, which penetrates the soul, which purifies the affections from debasing attachments, and by a fixed and steady regard to God subdues every sinful passion, and forms the inclinations to piety and virtue.”5 To purify the affections and subdue the passions is a serious operation; it implies a sacrifice of inclination,—a subjugation of the will. This mental operation many persons are not willing to undergo; and it is not therefore wonderful that some persons are willing to satisfy themselves with the exercise of a species of devotion that shall be attained at less cost.
A person goes to an oratorio of sacred music. The majestic flow of harmony, the exalted subjects of the hymns or anthems, the full and rapt assembly, excite, and warm, and agitate his mind: sympathy becomes powerful; he feels the stirring of unwonted emotions; weeps, perhaps, or exults; and when he leaves the assembly, persuades himself that he has been worshipping and glorifying God.
There are some preachers with whom it appears to be an object of much solicitude to excite the hearer to a warm and impassioned state of feeling. By ardent declamation or passionate displays of the hopes and terrors of religion, they arouse and alarm his imagination. The hearer, who desires perhaps to experience the ardours of religion, cultivates the glowing sensations, abandons his mind to the impulse of feeling, and at length goes home in complacency with his religious sensibility, and glads himself with having felt the fervours of devotion.
Kindred illusion may be the result of calmer causes. The lofty and silent aisle of an ancient cathedral, the venerable ruins of some once honoured abbey, the boundless expanse of the heaven of stars, the calm immensity of the still ocean, or the majesty and terror of a tempest, sometimes suffuses the mind with a sort of reverence and awe; a sort of “philosophic transport” which a person would willingly hope is devotion of the heart.6
It might be sufficient to assure us of the spuriousness of these semblances of religious feeling, to consider, that emotions very similar in their nature are often excited by subjects which have no connexion with religion. I know not whether the affecting scenes of the drama and of fictitious story want much but association with ideas of religion to make them as devotional as those which have been noticed: and if, on the other hand the feelings of him who attends an oratorio were excited by a military band, he would think, not of the Deity or of heaven, but of armies and conquests. Nor should it be forgotten, that persons who have habitually little pretension to religion are perhaps as capable of this factitious devotion as those in whom religion is constantly influential; and surely it is not to be imagined, that those who rarely direct reverent thoughts to their Creator can suddenly adore him for an hour and then forget him again, until some new excitement again arouses their raptures, to be again forgotten.
To religious feelings, as to other things, the truth applies,—“By their fruits ye shall know them.” If these feelings do not tend to “purify the affections from debasing attachments;” if they do not tend to “form the inclinations to piety and virtue,” they certainly are not devotional. Upon him whose mind is really prostrated in the presence of his God, the legitimate effect is, that he should be impressed with a more sensible consciousness of the Divine presence; that he should deviate with less facility from the path of duty; that his desires and thoughts should be reduced to Christian subjugation; that he should feel an influential addition to his dispositions to goodness; and that his affections should be expanded towards his fellow-men. He who rises from the sensibilities of seeming devotion, and finds that effects such as these are not produced in his mind, may rest assured that, in whatever he has been employed, it has not been in the pure worship of that God who is a Spirit. To the real prostration of the soul in the Divine presence, it is necessary that the mind should be still:—“Be still, and know that I am God.” Such devotion is sufficient for the whole mind; it needs not—perhaps in its purest state it admits not—the intrusion of external things. And when the soul is thus permitted to enter, as it were, into the sanctuary of God; when it is humble in his presence; when all its desires are involved in the one desire of devotedness to him; then is the hour of acceptable worship,—then the petition of the soul is prayer,—then is its gratitude thanksgiving,—then is its oblation praise.
That such devotion, when such is attainable, will have a powerful tendency to produce obedience to the moral law may justly be expected: and here indeed is the true connexion of the subject of these remarks with the general object of the present essays. Without real and efficient piety of mind, we are not to expect a consistent observance of the moral law. That law requires, sometimes, sacrifices of inclination and of interest, and a general subjugation of the passions, which religion, and religion only, can capacitate and induce us to make. I recommend not enthusiasm. or fanaticism, but that sincere and reverent application of the soul to its Creator which alone is likely to give either distinctness to our perceptions of his will, or efficiency to our motives to fulfil it.
A few sentences will be indulged to me here respecting Religious Conversation. I believe both that the proposition is true and that it is expedient to set it down,—that religious conversation is one of the banes of the religious world. There are many who are really attached to religion, and who sometimes t eel its power, but who allow their better foe lings to evaporate in an ebullition of words. They forget how much religion is an affair of the mind, and how little of the tongue: they forget how possible it is to live under its power without talking of it to their friends; and some, it is to be feared, may forget how possible it is to talk without feeling its influence. Not that the good man’s piety is to live in his breast like an anchorite in his cell. The evil does not consist in speaking of religion, but in speaking too much; not in manifesting our allegiance to God; not in encouraging by exhortation, and amending by our advice; not in placing the light upon a candlestick,—but in making religion a common topic of discourse. Of all species of well—intended religious conversation, that perhaps is the most exceptionable which consists in narrating our own religious feelings. Many thus intrude upon that religious quietude which is peculiarly favourable to the Christian character. The habit of communicating “experiences” I believe to be very prejudicial to the mind. It may sometimes be right to do this: in the great majority of instances I believe it is not beneficial, and not right. Men thus dissipate religious impressions, and therefore diminish their effects. Such observation as I have been enabled to make has sufficed to convince me that where the religious character is solid there is but little religious talk, and that where there is much talk the religious character is superficial, and, like other superficial things, is easily destroyed. And if these be the attendants, and in part the consequences, of general religious conversation, how peculiarly dangerous must that conversation be which exposes those impressions that perhaps were designed exclusively for ourselves, and the use of which may be frustrated by communicating them to others. Our solicitude should be directed to the invigoration of the religious character in our own minds; and we should be anxious that the plant of piety, if it had fewer branches, might have a deeper root.7
“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is.”8 The divinely authorized institution of Moses respecting a weekly Sabbath, and the practice of the first teachers of Christianity, constitute a sufficient recommendation to set apart certain times for the exercise of public worship, even were there no injunctions such as that which is placed at the head of this paragraph. It is, besides, manifestly proper, that beings who are dependent upon God for all things, and especially for their hopes of immortality, should devote a portion of their time to the expression of their gratitude, and submission, and reverence. Community of dependence and of hope dictates the propriety of united worship; and worship to be united must be performed at times previously fixed.
From the duty of observing the Hebrew Sabbath we are sufficiently exempted by the fact that it was actually not observed by the apostles of Christ. The early Christians met, not on the last day of the week, but on the first. Whatever reason may be assigned as a motive for this rejection of the ancient Sabbath, I think it will tend to discountenance the observance of any day, as such: for if that day did not possess perpetual sanctity, what day does possess it?9
And with respect to the general tenor of the Christian Scriptures as to the sanctity of particular days, it is, I think, manifestly adverse to the opinion that one day is obligatory rather than another. “Let no man therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ.”10 Although this “Sabbath-day” was that of the Jews, yet the passage indicates the writer’s sentiments, generally, respecting the sanctity of specific days: he classes them with matters which all agree to be unimportant; with meats, and drinks, and new moons; and pronounces them to be alike “shadows,” That strong passage addressed to the Christiana of Galatia is of the same import: “ How turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.”11 That which, in writing to the Christians of Colosse, the apostle called “shadows,” he now, in writing to those of Galatia, calls “beggarly elements.” The obvious tendency is to discredit the observance of particular times; and if he designed to except the first day of the week, it is not probable that he would have failed to except it.
Nevertheless, the question whether we are obliged to observe the first day of the week because it is the first, is one point—whether we ought to devote it to religious exercises, seeing that it is actually set apart for the purpose, is another. The early Christians met on that day, and their example has been followed in succeeding times; but if for any sufficient reason (and such reasons, however unlikely to arise, are yet conceivable), the Christian world should fix upon another day of the week instead of the first, I perceive no grounds upon which the arrangement could be objected to. As there is no sanctity in any day, and no obligation to appropriate one day rather than another, that which is actually fixed upon is the best and the right one. Bearing in mind, then, that it is right to devote some portion of our time to religious exercises, and that no objection exists to the day which is actually appropriated, the duty seems very obvious,—so to employ it.
Cessation from labour on the first day of the week is nowhere enjoined in the Christian Scriptures.12 Upon this subject, the principles on which a person should regulate his conduct appear to be these:—He should reflect that the whole of the day is not too large a portion of our time to devote to public worship, to religious recollectedness, and sedateness of mind; and therefore that occupations which would interfere with this sedateness and recollectedness, or with public worship, ought to be foreborne. Even if he supposed that the devoting of the whole of the day was not necessary for himself, he should reflect, that since a considerable part of mankind are obliged from various causes to attend to matters unconnected with religion during a part of the day, and that one set attends to them during one part and another during another,—the whole of the day is necessary for the community, even though it were not for each individual: and if every individual should attend to his ordinary affairs during that portion of the day which he deemed superabundant, the consequence might soon be that the day would not be devoted to religion at all.
These views will enable the reader to judge in what manner we should decide questions respecting attention to temporal affairs on particular occasions. The day is not sacred, therefore business is not necessarily sinful; the day ought to be devoted to religion, therefore other concerns which are not necessary are, generally, wrong. The remonstrance, “Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the Sabbath-day?” sufficiently indicates that, when reasonable calls are made upon us, we are at liberty to attend to them. Of the reasonableness of these calls every man must endeavour to judge for himself. A tradesman ought, as a general rule, to refuse to buy or sell goods. If I sold clothing, I would furnish a surtout to a man who was suddenly summoned on a journey, but not to a man who could call the next morning. Were I a builder, I would prop a falling wall, but not proceed in. the erection of a house. Were I a lawyer, I would deliver an opinion to an applicant to whom the delay of a day would be a serious injury, but not to save him the expense of an extra night’s lodging by waiting. I once saw with pleasure on the signboard of a public-house, a notice that “none but travellers could be furnished with liquor on a Sunday.” The medical profession, and those who sell medicine, are differently situated; yet, it is ‘not to be doubted that both, and especially the latter, might devote a smaller portion of the day to their secular employments, if earnestness in religious concerns were as great as the opportunities to attend to them. Some physicians in extensive practice attend almost as regularly on public worship as any of their neighbours. Excursions of pleasure on this day are rarely defensible: they do not comport with the purposes to which the day is appropriated. To attempt specific rules upon such a subject were, however, vain. Not every thing which partakes of relaxation is unallowable. A walk in the country may be proper and right, when a party to a watering-place would be improper and wrong.13 There will be little difficulty in determining what it is allowable to do and what it is not, if the inquiry be not, how much secularity does religion allow? but how much can I, without a neglect of duty, avoid?
The habit which obtains with many persons of travelling on this day is peculiarly indefensible; because it not only keeps the traveller from his church or meeting, but keeps away his servants, or the postmen on the road, and ostlers, and cooks, and waiters. All these may be detained from public worship by one man’s journey of fifty miles. Such a man incurs some responsibility. The plea of “saving time” is not remote from irreverence; for if it has any meaning it is this, that our time is or more value when employed in business than when employed in the worship of God. It is discreditable to this country that the number of carriages which traverse it on this day is so great. The evil may rightly and perhaps easily be regulated by the legislature. You talk of difficulties: you would have talked of many more, if it were now, for the first time, proposed to shut up the general post-office one day in seven. We should have heard of parents dying before their children could hear of their danger; of bills dishonoured and merchants discredited for want of a post; and of a multitude of other inconveniences which busy anticipation would have discovered,—Yet the general post-office is shut; and where is the evil? The journeys of stage-coaches may be greatly diminished in number; and though twenty difficulties may be predicted, none would happen but such as were easily home. An increase of the duty per mile on those coaches which travelled every day might perhaps effect the object. Probably not less than forty persons are employed on temporal affairs, in consequence of an ordinary stage-coach journey of a hundred miles.14
A similar regulation would be desirable with respect to “Sunday papers.” The ordinary contents of a newspaper are little accordance with religious sobriety and abstraction from the world. News of armies, and of funds and markets, of political contests and party animosities, of robberies and trials, of sporting, and boxing, and the stage; with merriment, and scandal, and advertisements,—are sufficiently ill adapted to the cultivation of religiousness of mind. An additional two-pence on the stamp duty would perhaps remedy the evil.
Private and especially public amusements on this day are clearly wrong.—It is remarkable that they appear least willing to dispense with their amusements on this day who pursue them on every other: and the observation affords one illustration among the many of the pitiable effects of what is called—though it is only called—a life of pleasure.
Upon every kind and mode of negligence respecting these religious obligations, the question is not simply, whether the individual himself sustains moral injury, but also whether he occasions injury to those around him. The example is mischievous. Even supposing that a man may feel devotion in his counting-house, or at the tavern, or over a pack of cards, his neighbours who know where he is, or his family who see what he is doing, are encouraged to follow his example, without any idea of carrying their religion with them. “My neighbour amuses himself, my father attends to his legers,—and why may not I?”—So that if such things were not intrinsically unlawful, they would be wrong because they are inexpedient. Some things might be done without blame by the lone tenant of a wild, which involve positive guilt in a man in society.
Holydays, such as those which are distinguished by the names of Christmas day and Good Friday, possess no sanction from Scripture; they are of human institution. If any religious community thinks it is desirable to devote more than fifty—two days in the year to the purpose of religion, it is unquestionably right that they should devote them; and it is among the good institutions of several Christian communities that they do weekly appropriate some additional hours to these purposes. The observance of the days in question is however of another kind: here, the observance refers to the day as such; and I know not how the censure can be avoided which was directed to those Galatians who “observed days, and months, and times, and years.” Whatever may be the sentiments of enlightened men, those who are not enlightened are likely to regard such days as sacred in themselves. This is turning to beggarly elements: this partakes of the character of superstition; and superstition of every kind and in every degree, is incongruous with that “glorious liberty” which Christianity describes, and to which it would conduct us.
If God have made known his will that any given ceremony shall be performed in his church, that expression is sufficient: we do not then inquire into the reasonableness of the ceremony nor into its utility. There is nothing in the act of sprinkling water in an infant’s face, or of immersing the person of an adult, which recommends it to the view of reason, any more than twenty other acts which might be performed: yet, if it be clear that such an act is required by the Divine will, all further controversy is at an end. It is not the business any more than it is the desire of the writer, here to inquire whether the Deity has thus expressed his will respecting any of the rites which are adopted in some Christian churches; yet the reader should carefully bear in mind what it is that constitutes the obligation of a rite or ceremony, and what does not. Setting utility aside, the obligation must be constituted by an expression of the Divine will: and he who inquires into the obligation of these things should reflect that they acquire a sort of adventitious sanctity from the power of association. Being connected from early life with his ideas of religion, he learns to attach to them the authority which he attaches to religion itself; and thus perhaps he scarcely knows, because he does not inquire, whether a given institution is founded upon the law of God, or introduced by the authority of men.
Of some ceremonies or rites, and of almost all formularies an1 other appendages of public worship, it is acknowledged that they possess no proper sanction from the will of God. Supposing the written expression of that will to contain nothing by which we can judge either of their propriety or impropriety, the standard to which they are to be referred is that of utility alone.
Now, it is “highly probable that benefits result “from these adjuncts of religion, because, in the present state of mankind, it may be expected that some persons are impressed with useful sentiments respecting religion through the intervention of these adjuncts, who might otherwise scarcely regard religion at all: it is probable that many are induced to attend upon public worship by the attraction of its appendages, who would otherwise stay away. Simply to be present at the font or the communion-table may be a means of inducing many religious considerations in the mind. And as to those who are attracted to public worship by its accompaniments, they may at least be in the way of religious benefit. One goes to hear the singing, and one the organ, and one to see the paintings or the architecture: a still larger number go because they are sure to find some occupation for their thoughts; some prayers or other offices of devotion, something to hear, and see, and do. “The transitions from one office of devotion to another, from confession to prayer, from prayer to thanksgiving, from thanksgiving to ‘hearing of the word,’ are contrived like scenes in the drama, to supply the mind with a succession of diversified engagements.”15 These diversified engagements I say attract some who would not otherwise attend; and it is better that they should go from imperfect motives than that they should not go at all. It must however be confessed, that the groundwork of this species of utility is similar to that which has been urged in favour of the use of images by the Romish church. “Idols,” say they, “are laymen’s books; and a great means to stir up pious thoughts and devotion in the learnedest.”16 Indeed, if it is once admitted that the prospect of advantage is a sufficient reason for introducing objects addressed to the senses into the public offices of worship, it is not easy to define where we shall stop. If we may have magnificent architecture, and music, and chanting, and paintings; why may we not have the yet more imposing pomp of the Catholic worship? I do not say that this pomp is useful and right, but that the principle on which such things are introduced into the worship of God furnishes no satisfactory means of deciding what amount of external observances should be introduced, and what should not. If figures on canvass are lawful because they are useful, why is not a figure in marble or in wood? Why may we not have images by way of laymen’s books, and of stirring up pious thoughts and devotion?
But it is to be apprehended of such things, or of “contrivances like scenes in a drama,” that they have much less tendency to promote devotion than some men may suppose. No doubt they may possess an imposing effect, they may powerfully interest and affect the imagination; but does not this partake too much of that factitious devotion of which we speak! Is it certain that such things have much tendency to purify the mind, and raise up within it a power that shall efficiently resist temptation?
Even if some benefits do result from the employment of these appendages of worship, they are not without their dangers and their evils. With respect to those which are addressed to the senses, whether to the eye or ear, there is obviously a danger that, like other sensible objects, they will withdraw the mind from its proper business,—the cultivation of pure religious affections towards God. And respecting the formularies of devotion, it has been said by a writer whom none will suspect of overstating their evils, “The arrogant man, as if, like the dervise in the Persian fable, he had shot his soul into the character he assumes, repeats with complete self-application, Lord, I am not high-minded: the trifler says, I hate vain thoughts: the irreligious, Lord, how I love thy law: he who seldom prays at all confidently repeats, All the day long I am occupied in thy statutes.”17 These are not light considerations: here is insincerity and untruths; and insincerity and untruths, it should be remembered, in the place and at the time when we profess to be humbled in the presence of God. The evils too are inseparable from the system. Wherever preconcerted formularies are introduced, there will always be some persons who join in the use of them without propriety, or sincerity, or decorum. Nor are the evils much extenuated by the hope which has been suggested, that “the holy vehicle of their hypocrisy may be made that of their conversion.” It is very Christian-like to indulge this hope, though I fear it is not very reasonable. Hypocrisy is itself an offence against God; and it can scarcely be expected that any thing so immediately connected with the offence will often effect such an end.
It is not however in the case of those who use these forms in a manner positively hypocritical that the greatest evil and danger consists: “There is a kind of mechanical memory in the tongue, which runs over the form without any aid of the understanding, without any concurrence of the will, without any consent of the affections; for do we not sometimes implore God to hear a prayer to which we are ourselves not attending?”18 We have sufficient reason for knowing that to draw nigh to God with our lips while our hearts are far from him is a serious offence in his sight; and when it is considered how powerful is the tendency of oft-repeated words to lose their practical connexion with feelings and ideas, it is to be feared that this class of evils resulting from the use of forms is of very wide extent. Nor is it to be forgotten, that as even religious persons sometimes employ “the form without any aid of the understanding,” so others are in danger of substituting the form for the reality, and of imagining that if they are exemplary in the observance of the externals of devotion, the work of religion is done.
Such circumstances may reasonably make us hesitate in deciding the question of the propriety of these external things, as a question of expediency. They may reasonably make us do more than this: for does Christianity allow us to invent a system of which some of the consequences are so bad, for the sake of a beneficial end!
Forms of prayer have been supposed to rest on an authority somewhat more definite than that of other religious forms. “The Lord’s Prayer is a precedent, as well as a pattern, for forms of prayer. Our Lord appears, if not to have prescribed, at least to have authorized, the use of fixed forms, when he complied with the request of the disciple who said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.”19 If we tum to Matt. vi., where the fullest account is given of the subject, we are, I think, presented with a different view. Our Saviour, who had been instituting his more perfect laws in place of the doctrines which had been taught of old time, proceeded to the prevalent mode of giving alms, of praying, of fasting, and of laying up wealth. He first describes these modes, and then directs in what manner Christians ought to give alms, and pray, and fast. Now if it be contended that he requires us to employ that particular form of prayer which he then dictated, it must also be contended that he requires us to adopt that particular mode of giving money which he described, and those particular actions, when fasting, which he mentions. If we are obliged to use the form of prayer, we are obliged to give money in secret; and when we fast, to put oil upon our heads. If these particular modes were not enjoined, neither is the form of prayer; and the Scriptures contain no indication that this form was ever used at all, either—by the apostles or their converts. But if the argument only asserts that fixed forms are “authorized” by the language of Christ, the question becomes a question merely of expediency. Supposing that they are authorized, they are to be employed only if they are useful. Even in this view, it may be remarked that there is no reason to suppose, from the Christian Scriptures, that either Christ himself or his apostles ever used a fixed form. If he had designed to authorize, and therefore to recommend, their adoption, is it not probable that some indications of their having been employed would be presented? But instead of this, we find that every prayer which is recorded in the volume was delivered extempore, upon the then occasion, and arising out of the then existing circumstances.
Yet, after all, the important question is not between preconcerted and extempore prayer as such, but whether any prayer is proper and right but that which is elicited by the influence of the Divine power. The inquiry into this solemn subject would lead us too wide from our general business. The truth, however, that “we know not what to pray for as we ought,” is as truly applicable to extempore as to formal prayer. Words merely do not constitute prayer, whether they be prepared beforehand or conceived at the moment they are addressed, There is reason to believe that he only offers perfectly acceptable supplications who offers them “according to the will of God,” and “of the ability which God giveth;” and if such be indeed the truth, it is scarcely compatible either with a prescribed form of words or with extempore prayer a& prescribed times. Yet if any Christian, in the piety of his heart, believes it to be most conducive to his religious interests to pray at stated times or in fixed forms, far be it from me to censure this the mode of his devotion, or to assume that his petition will not obtain access to the Universal Lord.
Finally, respecting uncommanded ceremonials and rituals of all kinds, and respecting all the appendages of public worship which have been adopted as helps to devotion, there is one truth to which perhaps every good man will assent,—that if religion possessed its sufficient and rightful influence, if devotion of the heart were duly maintained without these things, they would no longer be needed. He who enjoys the vigorous exercise of his limbs is encumbered by the employment of a crutch. Whether the Christian world is yet prepared for the .relinquishment of these appendages and “helps,”—whether an equal degree of efficacious religion would be maintained without them,—are questions which I presume not to determine: but it may nevertheless be decided, that this is the state of the Christian church to which we should direct our hopes and our endeavours,—and that Christianity will never possess its proper influence, and will not effect its destined objects, until the internal dedication of the heart is universally attained.
To those who may sometimes be brought into contact with persons who profess skepticism respecting Christianity, and especially to those who are conscious of any tendency in their own minds to listen to the objections of these persons, it may be useful to observe, that the grounds upon which skeptics build their disbelief of Christianity are commonly very slight. The number is comparatively few whose opinions are the result of any tolerable degree of investigation. They embraced skeptical notions through the means which they now take of diffusing them among others,—not by arguments, but jests; not by objections to the historical evidence of Christianity, but by conceits and witticisms; not by examining the nature of the religion as it was delivered by its Founder, but by exposing the conduct of those who profess it. Perhaps the seeming paradox is true, that no men are so credulous, that no men accept important propositions upon such slender evidence, as the majority of those who reject Christianity. To believe that the religious opinions of almost all the civilized world are founded upon imposture, is to believe an important proposition; a proposition which no man who properly employs his faculties would believe without considerable weight of evidence, But what is the evidence upon which the “unfledged witlings who essay their wanton efforts” against religion usually found their notions? Alas! they are so far from having rejected Christianity upon the examination of its evidences, that they do not know what Christianity is. To disbelieve the religion of Christianity upon grounds which shall be creditable to the understanding involves no light task. A man must investigate and scrutinize; he must examine the credibility of testimony; he must weigh and compare evidence; he must inquire into the reality of historical facts. If, after rationally doing all this, he disbelieves in Christianity,—be it so. I think him, doubtless, mistaken, but I do not think him puerile and credulous. But he who professes skepticism without any of this species of inquiry is credulous and puerile indeed: and such moat skeptics actually are. “Concerning unbelievers and doubters of every class, one observation may almost universally be made with truth, that they are little acquainted with the nature of the Christian religion, and still less with the evidence by which it is supported.”20 In France, skepticism has extended itself as widely perhaps as in any country in the world, and its philosophers, forty or fifty years ago, were ranked among the most intelligent and sagacious of mankind. And upon what grounds did these men reject Christianity? Dr. Priestley went with Lord Shelburne to France, and he says, “I had an opportunity of seeing and conversing with every person of eminence wherever we came:” I found “all the philosophical persons to whom I was introduced at Paris unbelievers in Christianity, and even professed atheists. As I chose on all occasions to appear as a Christian, I was told by some of them that I was the only person they had ever met with of whole understanding they had any opinion, who professed to believe in Christianity. But on interrogating them on the subject, I soon found that they had given no proper attention to it, and did not really know what Christianity was. This was also the case with a great part of the company that I saw at Lord Shelburne’s.”21 If these philosophical men rejected Christianity in such contemptible and shameful ignorance of its nature and evidences, upon what grounds are we to suppose the ordinary striplings of infidelity reject it?
How then does it happen that those who affect skepticism are so ambitious to make their skepticism known? Because it is a short and easy road to distinction; because it affords a cheap means of gratifying vanity. To “rise above vulgar prejudices and superstitions,”—“to entertain enlarged and liberal opinions,” are phrases of great attraction, especially to young men; and how shall they show that they rise above vulgar prejudices, how shall they so easily manifest the enlargement of their views, as by rejecting a system which all their neighbours agree to be true? They feel important to themselves, and that they are objects of curiosity to others: and they are objects of curiosity, not on account of their own qualities, but on account of the greatness of that which they contemn. The peasant who reviles a peasant may revile him without an auditor, but a province will listen to him who vilifies a king. I know not that an intelligent person should be advised to reason with these puny assailants; their notions and their conduct are not the result of reasoning. What they need is the humiliation of vanity and the exposure of folly. A few simple interrogations would expose their folly; and for the purposes of humiliation, simply pass them by. The sun that shines upon them makes them look bright and large. Let reason and truth withdraw their rays, and these seeming stars will quickly set in silence and in darkness.
More contemptible motives to the profession of infidelity cannot perhaps exist, but there are some which are more detestable. Hartley says that “the strictness and purity of the Christian religion in respect to sexual licentiousness is probably the chief thing which makes vicious men first fear and hate, and then vilify and oppose it.”22
Whether therefore we regard the motives which lead to skepticism, or the reasonableness of the grounds upon which it is commonly founded, there is surely much reason for an ingenuous young person to hold in contempt the jests, and pleasantries, and sophistries respecting revelation with which he may be assailed.
See Footnotes here.
All Sub-Works of Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).:
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- Preface to the American Edition.
- Introductory Notices.
- Moral Obligations.
- Standard of Right and Wrong.
- Subordinate Standards of Right and Wrong.
- Standard of Right and Wrong Footnotes.
- Collateral Observations.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God Footnotes.