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The influences which, during the last half century, have modified the rigor of the prevailing creeds of Christendom, have not been few nor fleeting. Theology has relaxed its grim features, and tacitly abandoned or put out of sight, one by one, tenets at variance with the advanced intelligence and religious sentiment of the age. The dogma of a divinely arranged atonement arbitrarily embracing a small portion of the human race, and consigning the rest, on account of their doctrinal unbelief, or vices of will, to everlasting perdition, is now rarely urged as an indispensable article of faith.
More harmonious views of the Deity and His dealings, and of the nature of Christ's mission, are becoming general. By many devout Chris1 *
tians it is believed, that, if there is to be punishment in another stage of being, it will be analogous to that which follows sin in this life, and with a remedial, not a vindictive object. By others it is held that Christ's atonement comprehended the entire race of man, and was final and unconditional.
The incompatibility of the old notion of a partial atonement with the present state of culture, moral and religious, among men, and the restlessness which a sense of that incompatibility produces in leading minds, have been evinced in a marked manner of late in the publication of an ingenious work * by one of the foremost champions of the old theology, in which, in order to vindicate the ways of God to man, under the assumptions of that theology, he revives the ancient theory of pre-existent sin, which regards the human race as fallen spirits, to whom in this life an opportunity is afforded of expiating the guilt which they contracted in unknown eras of being. We will not pause upon the difficulties with which this fanciful scheme is crowded.
It is well known that the celebrated and eyangelical John Foster held decided views in opposition to the belief in the eternal duration of future punishment; and, strange as it may appear, his
* The Conflict of Ages, by Edward Beecher, D. D.
standing and influence as an orthodox” Christian and minister were not lost thereby. He writes, as late as 1841, on this subject : “I acknowledge my inability (I would say it reverently) to admit this belief, together with a belief in the Divine goodness, - the belief that God is love, that His tender mercies are over all His works."
- What, then,” he says, on another occasion, “shall we think of that theology, which represents the men, whom God has made most like Himself, as exult ing for ever and ever in the most dreadful sufferings of the larger part of those who have been their fellow-inhabitants of this world ?” Even Dr. Watts, a portion of whose writings justify us in regarding him as one of the most uncompromising expounders of the theology thus indicated, appears to have ultimately changed his views in regard to its most repulsive article. John Foster speaks of himself as being “in the same parallel of latitude with respect to orthodoxy as the revered Dr. Watts in the late maturity of his thoughts.”
Some moralists have contended that nothing less than the fear of endless woe hereafter will deter men from sin in this life. But the piety induced and sustained by such a motive can have little of saving grace in its composition; and it may well be doubted whether such derogatory notions of the
Deity as the fear involves do not multiply believe ers less rapidly than scoffers.
The Poets have, with some exceptions, been in advance of the theologians in giving us ideas of Providence and a future life, consistent with the wants and analogies of our nature, and not at variance with the teachings of revelation. Poetry, from the time of Job, has been the mother tongue of devotion and prophecy; and the poets, in their highest moods, have generally been true to those inmost assurances of the soul, which represent a God and an after life in keeping with our best ideas of omnipotent benignity and love. Poetry falters in its lofty and confident tone, and gives us for its winged words of inspiration a mere vulgar catalogue of horrors, when it would depict a material hell, or set forth the doctrine of everlasting perdition for any human soul. Even those poets who are regarded as theologically “orthodox” often poetically heterodox; for, at times, they seem to exult in their escape from their narrow sectarian enclosure— to have a clear glimpse of the all-embracing mercy of the universal Father -- and to give utterance to a strain, breaking like a clarion's voice through sounds of groaning and lamentation, and rebuking the gloomy creed, which the heart unerringly rejects, however the intellect,
succumbing to supposed authority, may labor to accept it. This fact, which no one who critically studies the religious poets can fail to recognize, will explain why, in this “ Testimony of the Poets," contributions from Milton, Young, Montgomery, and even Watts, may be found.
Much that will be new to American readers is presented in this volume. In the “ Sermons in Sonnets,” by the Rev. Chauncey Hare Townshend, an esteemed clergyman of the established Church of England, the doctrine of Universal Salvation is set forth with the learning of the profound theologian, and the fervid eloquence of the true poet. The poems of Hartley Coleridge, Horace Smith, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Hood, John Sterling, P. J. Bailey, Charles Mackay, Mrs. Browning, and Mary Howitt, are no less decided in their tone in reference to this subject; and it will be found that Wordsworth, Southey, Keble, Bernard Barton, Bowring, Wilson, and other poets of hardly inferior note, including several of American origin, have given utterance to sentiments which admit of but one construction, and that opposed to the theological interpretation of God and Scripture which would consign more than nine-tenths of every generation of men to everlasting anguish in another life.