Слике страница
PDF
ePub

spect to it, and do not thereby find ourselves at liberty to examine with perfect freedom, narratives and reasonings which are confessedly not infallible, and in which, therefore, there may be mistakes. Besides, it is an allowed maxim with us, that the fewer blemishes of any kind we leave in our religion, the greater service we render it. But it is no uncommon thing to admit general principles, and yet startle at the natural and necessary consequences of them.

I am sensible that the present times are in more respects than one unfavourable to theological discussions. Very many, of whom better things might be expected, are averse to them; thinking them altogether useless, or perhaps dangerous. They are persuaded that their own opinions (which they have adopted without giving themselves much trouble about the matter) are perfectly rational, that the truth of them must be admitted whenever they are fairly proposed to the mind, and that all we have to do is to apply them to their proper practical uses; and to the inculcating of these, they would have all discourses from the pulpit, and froin the press too, to be confined.

A great majority of every denomination of Christians have always had this dislike of speculation, and, therefore, it is not at all extraordinary that there should be so great a proportion of them among those who think more rationally than their ancestors, and who, therefore, rank themselves in the class of rational Christians. Their opinions are not what they have investigated themselves, but what they have received from others, as much as the Roman Catholics have theirs. It may, therefore, be expected that they should be affected in the same manner towards them. Laborious inquirers after truth are but few in any community, nor is there any occasion that they should be numerous. It is only to be wished, that those who take no pains to inquire themselves, would throw no obstacles in the way of him who does, and have the same indulgence for his feelings that he has for theirs.

In another respect also, the times in which we live are unfavourable to free inquiry in matters of religion. We are not, indeed, persecuted for our religious principles, and few persons have even inuch scruple of openly declaring what they think ; but the influence of habit, of fashion, and of connexions, in these peaceable times, is such, that few persons, very few indeed, have the courage to act agreeably to their principles, so as to rank themselves, and to appear in that class of men to which they really belong. They content themselves, as the Heathen philosophers did, with thinking with the wise, and acting with the vulgar; a conduct certainly unworthy of a Christian, who ought to sacrifice every thing to truth and consistency of character. There is this good, however, arises from the evil, that such persons allow themselves more liberty in speculation than they probably would do, if they thought themselses bound in conscience to do what I should call acting agreeably to their principles; and by this means the foundation is gradually laying for a future change in the more public aspect of things.

The converts that are daily made to the Unitarian doctrine, and who for the present continue members of Trinitarian churches, may in time be sensible of the obligation they are under to withdraw themselves from that mode of worship; or if not, they will always be ready to join their influence to forward any attempts that may be made towards a farther reformation. And when the generality of those who really read and think, shall become Unitarians, (and those who do not read or think for themselves, are sure to follow their leaders, and of course join every majority,) a small change in the political state of things in a country, such as no man can foresee bet

re it actually takes place, and which may be at no great distance, may suffice to overturn the best-compacted establishments at once, before the bigotted friends of them suspect any danger. And thus the system which had stood for ages, without any visible marks of ruin or decay, may vanish, like an enchanted castle in romance. For then men, whose minds were already emancipated, will in a moment find themselves at liberty in all respects, without any motive whatever to engage them to give their support to error and superstition. Circumstances may even arise in which the most indifferent may feel themselves inspired with courage, and become warm advocates for those principles which they now hold in perfect silence, hardly speaking of them to their nearest friends. How many are there already speaking out, who some time ago were almost afraid to think!

Let us not, therefore, be discouraged, though for the present we should see no great number of churches professedly Unitarian. It is sufficiently evident that Unitarian principles are gaining ground every day. Every attempt to suppress them by writing or otherwise, has hitherto been favourable to their spread, and we may.

be confident it ever will be so. We are now sowing the seeds which the cold of winter may prevent from sprouting, but which a genial spring will make to shoot and grow up; so that the field which today appears perfectly naked and barren, may to-morrow be all green, and promise an abundant harvest. The present silent propagation of truth may even be compared to those causes in nature which lie dormant for a time, but which, in proper circumstances, act with the greatest violence. We are, as it were, laying gunpowder, grain by grain, under the old building of error and superstition, which a single spark may hereafter inflame so as to produce an instantaneous explosion; in consequence of which, that edifice, the erection of which has been the work of ages, may be overturned in a moment, and so effectually as that the same foundation can never be built upon again.*

• I was present, March 28, 1787, when Dr. Priestley, as he relates in the Preface to Familiar Letters, heard " Sir William Dolben read this paragraph in the House of Commons, with great solemnity," on Mr. Beaufoy's first motion for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. The worthy Baronet, I well recollect, dispensed the gunpowder with a deliberation, awfully impressive, grain by grain. Mr. Courtenay, who had often relieved the tedium of a debate, now assured this alarmed representative of Oxford University, that his Church had nothing to fear, as it was only “the old building of error and superstition" which was in any danger.

Dr. Geddes, in 1790, published his Epistola Macaronica ad Fratrem, a burlesque poem, occasioned by some incidents which had lately occurred at a public dinner of the Dissenters, at which Dr. Priestley was not present. In the following lines,

If we be successful in the propagation of truth, we need not give qurselves any concern about the measures of government respecting it. This is equally out of our province and unnecessary. Causes will always produce their effects; and though the cases be of a different nature, it is as certain an inference as any in geometry, that an Unitarian people cannot long be subject to a Trinitarian establishment. Indeed, no motive can be imagined why any civil governors (supposing it to be in their power) should not allow the people the open profession of the religion they really choose, and are willing to support. Things are already in such a train that, though no person can foresee the particular time and manner of the change in favour of Unitarianism, we may be as certain of its taking place as if we saw it actually accomplished. And till things are properly ripe for such a revolution, it would be absurd to expect it, and in vain to attempt it.

When a competent number of the more intelligent persons in all parts of the Roman empire were either declared Christians, or so well disposed towards a change as not to be sorry for it, the conversion of an emperor was sufficient to establish Christianity, without any alarming opposition. The conversion of Tiberius, of Vespasian, of Marcus Antoninus, or any other emperor in an earlier period would not have done it. But when an internal revolution had been previously made in favour of Christianity, though Constantine should not have been converted, the external revolution could not have been delayed much longer. It would certainly have taken place, whether any particular emperor had favoured it or not.

In like manner, when the minds of a proper number of persons were enlightened with respect to the grosser errors of Popery, the boldness of Luther and a few others, roused by the impudence of the venders of indulgences, was sufficient to produce what has been called the Reformation. Ten Luthers; in an earlier period, would only have supplied so many victims for the Inquisition; and though no Luther should have appeared at the beginning of the sixteenth century, things were then in such a state, that, by some other means, a similar revolution in favour of religious liberty would, no doubt, have taken place.

It has been well observed by philosophical historians, that if the loss of a single battle decide the fate of an empire, there must have been a previous reason, in the general state of things, why so much should depend on the event of a single battle; and that, in a different state of things, the loss of many battles would not have overturned the state.

" the grains of gunpowder,” says Mr. Good, “which excited so much idle inflammability and uproar among the High-church party, are introduced with much dexterity and effect:

“Non aderas, Priestley! potior te cura tenebat

Rure, ubi magna inter centum miracula rerum,
Horslæi caput iv rutilantia fulmina forgis;
Sulphuris et satagis subtilia grana parare,
Church quibus et churchmen in cælum upblowere possis.

Mem. of Geddes, pp. 258, 259.

[ocr errors]

It is our business, therefore, by conversation, by preaching, and by writing, to get access to the minds of those who are disposed to think; and without giving ourselves any trouble about the conduct of government, to employ ourselves simply in the propagation of truth. Here is a great and glorious field fully open to our utmost exertions, and requiring them. And while we are successful in these labours, (and the success is visible every day,) though we should not live to see any favourable change in the face of public affairs, we may die in as firm a faith of its taking place, as Joseph did of his countrymen inhabiting the promised land, when he ordered that he should not be buried, but that his body should only be embalmed, and put into a coffin in Egypt, ready to be carried away when they should leave that country.

The most equitable thing in the governors of any country would, no doubt, be to allow Unitarians, or any other description of men, the use of a church, or any other public building in a town, in which they should be so númerous as to occupy one, and when their proportion of the tithes, &c. would be sufficient for the maintenance of a minister of their persuasion; and no sort of inconvenience would arise to the state from such a measure as this. This was done in several places in Germany, at the time of the Reformation. But in the present state of things, it is in vain to expect any such equitable conduct. We may now, however, besides deserving it, be doing that which shall ensure such an event at a future time, when it shall be sufficiently understood that Unitarians are quite as good subjects as Trinitarians, and, therefore, that there has been no good reason why the latter should so long have enjoyed their present exclusive advantages. How the belief of a mysterious doctrine operates to the prosperity and security of the state, is a problem not very easy to solve.

At Boston, in New England, (a country in which no man was taxed towards the support of any religion that he did not approve, * and which never flourished the less on that account,) there were three episcopal churches ; and had the English government continued there, the English Liturgy, in its present state, would, no doubt have continued to be used in them all. But the principal of them has now adopted an Unitarian form of worship, and the same will probably be done in other provinces of the United States. Was there equal liberty in this country, (which may take place by means as unforeseen by us as the Revolution in America,) there are few considerable towns in which the people (voting freely, and all the complex influence of the present establishment out of the question) would not have at least one Unitarian church. And if one would be wanted now, there will, I am confident, be a demand

* See Vol. VIII. p. 6, Note.

+ The Episcopalians in America have, I believe, now generally adopted an English Liturgy, reformed according to the plan suggested in the Candid Disquisitions, 1749, omitting the Athanasian Creed, and reducing the number of articles. See Lindsey's Vind. Priestl., pp. 19–26; Mon. Repos. XIV. pp. 407, 408.

See Mem. of Lindsey, p. 238.

See the accomplishment of this expectation, related in various articles in the latter volumes of the Mon. Repos.

· for two, twenty years hence. This may be said with tolerable certainty, from the consideration of the increase of Unitarians in the last fifty years, the greater still in proportion in the last twenty, and the greatest of all in the last ten years. What, then, may we not reasonably expect from the train in which things now are?

The efforts of man to stop what they may call the mischief, would be like the attempt to stop a rivulet supplied by a constant spring, however small. Nothing could be easier than to make a dam that would be sufficient for the purpose at first; but as the water keeps rising, the dam must be made higher and stronger, and (the effort of the water to burst its way continually increasing) the highest and strongest must necessarily fail some time or other, and the deluge, which would be the consequence, would be in proportion to the time in which it had been confined. Truth has never yet been conquered by power, numerous as have been the attempts of the latter to bear it down.

It may be said, that since there has been an increase of Unbelierers, as well as of Unitarians, in the last century, it may, on these principles, be predicted that they will continue to increase to the extirpation of Christians of all denominations. This reasoning, I own, would have been just, if men had become Unbelievers, as well as Unitarians, from reading and thinking. But there is in this respect a most essential difference in the two cases. Of the unbelievers of this age (I speak from the fullest persuasion) few, indeed, are so, from that serious inquiry and real conviction, to which alone the spread of Unitarianism can be ascribed. The rejection of Christianity may be accounted for from many causes besides a serious conviction of its fallacy; but no other cause 'can reasonably be assigned why a Trinitarian should become an Unitarian; as the obligations of moral virtue are not relaxed by the change, and the allurements of honour and profit are on the side of the established faith.

It is evident to those who converse with Unbelievers, that few of them are qualified to discuss the evidences of Christianity, a proof that they have not rejected it from any deficiency that they found in its proof; whereas there are great numbers of Unitarians who can readily give the reasons of their faith, which shews that they have really considered and weighed the subject.

It is also to be observed, that a great increase of Unbelievers has been owing to the corruptions of Christianity; and this cause ceasing, in part by the efforts of Unitarians, the effects will in due time cease of course. Christianity and its evidences are exhibited in such a light at present, that fewer philosophical persons, giving due attention to the subject (which is the great thing that is wanting, but which many circumstances may excite) will be able to withhold their assent to it.

Others will object to the conclusiveness of this reasoning to prove the future universality of Unitarianism, the rapid spread and long continuance of Mahometanism in the world. But the grounds and principles of that religion underwent no very severe discussion at the time of its promulgation, or early propagation. The professors of it wrote little in its defence, and there never was an age in which

« ПретходнаНастави »