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Art. II.-Moral CHARACTERISTICS OF THE NINETEENTH
The age in which we live, after every allowance has been made for the influence of our feelings on our judgment, must still be regarded as one of a very peculiar character, and fraught with momentuous consequences. A distinguished historian has remarked that it will probably be denominated by posterity, the constitutional period. In the arts and sciences it is not so much the age of discovery and research, as of the skillful application of the discoveries and researches of former times-less the age of bright creations of genius, than of the refinements of criticism and taste. In religion, did we care to designate it by a single term, we might call it the reriving period, not only as revivals of religion ab:*ind in it, but as christians seem to be waking up to the consideration of their duties, in some points not heretofore so well understood, or so correctly appreciated. That there is enough to distinguish this age from those that have gone before, and to entitle it to some general appellation implying its peculiar character, might then be assumed; but we choose rather to delineate the separate traits which we seem to recognize as belonging to it, and leave our sketches to make their own impression. It is our design to illustrate the subject for the most part, though not exclusively, in respect to religion.
1. We need hardly say, that a spirit of free inquiry is a characteristic of the times in which we live. Many indeed in the boldness of their speculations, have broken away from the authority even of the scriptures, or have shot wild into the “palpable obscure" of neology and atheism. The uniformity of religious opinion has been invaded. But for this result, let it be remembered, there is no human help short of returning to the Pope, and to the dogmatism and ecclesiastical tyranny of the dark ayes. In the present state of the religious world, it is nearly an unavoidable incident to free discussion, that some will deviate widely and extravagantly from the truth. But it may be hoped that the greater part, who are guided by common sense and a sober judgment, and are not committed by preconceived opinions, will be essentially right in religious belief, and right because to the minds of such persons, truth, when left unrestricted, will commend itself. Accordingly, of the entire body of the religious profession in protestant christendom, where alone freedom of inquiry in respect to moral subjects really exists, the evangelical denominations constitute much the larger portion. An essentially unsound creed is found only in a few of the more inconsiderable sects, who, although professing an entire dissent from popery, would be the first to coalesce with it, on the Vol. V.
simple principle that error, even in the most dissimilar situations and of the most heterogeneous kinds, always loves its own. While
, therefore, carnal and unhumbled men-men who have resolved to find in religion that only which suits their selfish feelings, have embraced error under the latitude of investigation now enjoyed, and which ought always and every where to be enjoyed; others, in greater numbers, who have brought their passions and prejudices to the foot of the cross, have learned the truth as it is in Jesus. They have felt its purifying and peace-giving influence. While many of the former description, as the neologists of Germany, have built up a monstrous system of extravagance and scepticism, others lave arisen in that same country, such as Neander, Hahn, Tholuck, Hengstenberg, and others, men of simple and ardent piety, of acute minds and profound learning, who are assaulting the proud fabric with giant blows, and who seem to be contented with nothing short of scattering its materials to the winds. They have brought on a reaction in favor of evangelical religion, which will not cease,
trust, till once reformed Germany shall be reformed again, and remain so till the millenium. The proper cure for the evils incident to a spirit of free inquiry is not, therefore, to repudiate all such inquiry, but to meet it with able, patient, and kind discussion, trusting at the same time in the blessing of God for success. Truth can scarcely fail of being elicited, or at least of being desended and sustained, when the spirit of bold inquiry is met in this manner.
2. A fondness for innovation is also a feature of the age in which we live. By this terin, as here employed, and descriptive of the facts to be mentioned, we are not to understand that which is evil and censurable in every instance, or in any instance in itself considered. The idea associated with change, or with a readiness to adopt it, is frequently, perhaps commonly, that it betokens recklessness and even criminality. But inovations on former habits, or modes of thinking are not necessarily wrong or indicative of a hasty judgment. Our fathers and the generations before us, were as liable to make mistakes as ourselves. What should give infallibility to one race or aye more than to another? Is it a proof, real or presumptive, that a principle is true, or that a custom is right, because it has come down to us from former times, especially because it has been sanctioned by a hoary antiquity! It is believed that the present age, correct as it considers itself in many respects, would not desire to be tried by such a rule, in regard to the precedents it may establish. It is certain whether other ages thought themselves faultless or not, that the present has never imagined itself to have any such claim to the consideration of coming times. We are beginning to learn that each generation must decide for itself in regard to its own rules and course of action, exo
tending to all subjects the principle which prevails in our own representative government, of legislating rather for ourselves than for those who are to succeed us. But however this may be, if it is to be inferred that a principle is true, or that a custom is right, because it has descended to us from former ages, then indeed is the Ptolemaic system of the universe, which places the earth in the center, and which is the system, or rather the notion of uneducated men even now, the true system. Then is the habit of theorizing, which the schoolmen taught us, and which some at this day prefer to the slow process of observing nature, the true secret of philosophical discovery. Then is the principle of despotism in human governments to be complacently admitted by those, to whom in their bitter experience, it has come down as an immemorial rule. On this ground, also, slavery with all its attendant usurpations and cruelties, is perfectly justifiable, both as an abstract principle and a long established usage. So far, however, are all changes in the practices and opinions of the community from being wrong because they are changes, that it could scarcely happen otherwise than that many of them must be right. It will be allowed, in regard to several new usages and sentiments, that they are far more correct
, and promise infinitely greater benefits to mankind, than those which they have displaced. We consess, for our part, that re like very much the change that has been witnessed during modern times, in the sentiments entertained respecting the lawfulness of the slave trade, the propriety of using force in matters of conscience, the expediency of uniting the church with the secular power of the state, and the moral consistency of the common use of a cohol. We are ready to express our high gratification in view of the different practices that has been adopted by multitudes in the christian world, on these and other points. We should not be at all sorry to see changes of this kind constantly taking place, so long as there is need of them, and to a much greater extent than has before been known.
Many persons are excessively afraid of innovations, as such. They would not disturb a custom or a theory, because it has been long established. However useless or pernicious it may have proved to be, it must stand because their fathers adopted it. Such is the power of narrow and illiberal views, strong prejudices, or sinful pertinacity. No reason can be assigned why we should be contented with what is erroneous in speculation or practice, when it can be made better--why we should be unwilling to try what is new, when we have been injured by what is old. All wisdom in the regulation of human affairs, lies in adapting measures to the demands of our cotemporaries—to the spirit and expectation of the age in which we live. If former usages prove to be unsuited to the circumstances in which we are placed, if former theories
obstruct the progress of divine truth, or subject the gospel to reproach, it cannot be unwise in us to set them aside. It would be madness to submit to be ruined, because other generations chose to run that hazard. Innovations are to be dreaded, only where they have a hurtful tendency, as for instance, where the alteration is from good to bad, or from bad to worse; where it is from indifferent to the same, with the inconvenience of change ; and possibly sometimes where it is from bad to good in the object itself, but attended with trouble or danger sufficient to render the benefit problematical. While, however, some persons are found to be excessively afraid of change in itself, others are found to be excessively given to it. They like it because it is innovation. They cannot be satisfied with any thing however promising it may be, for a long time together. Even that which has been proved to be good and to work well, must be removed to make room for an esperiment of doubtful utility. No new institution or doctrine is approved any longer than wliile it is new. Indeed the xarórépor si, whether proclaimed or heard, constitutes the record of their tine. V This extreme as well as the other is to be avoided. Changes as above intimated, should not be sought where they are not plainly necessary and useful. But in cases where there seems to be a fair prospect of improvement, let them be tried; and at all events they ought to be tried, where the existing state of things is intolerable, or is at variance with a degree of information greatly exceeding that which prevailed when the contemplated objects of change first appeared.
That the present is an age of innovation is apparent to every one. We have seemed to discover many errors, or at least deficiencies, in the institutions and principles that have descended to us from former times. The new measures for evangelizing the heathen, for promoting revivals of religion, for spiritually enlightening the public mind, and for advancing the various interests of general morality; the many associations, in many forms, of pious and benevolent men, in behalf of these objects, are an exemplification of the spirit which now prevails so far as the religious world is affected. We may mention also, as specimens of the same spirit in matters other than religious, changes in governments designed to extend and secure the liberty of the people, but leading also, it must be confessed, to a degree of insubordination-improvements in the application of mechanical power, with a view to supersede human labor—and new methods of effecting the business of education, bappily most desirable, if they do not, in this instance, supply the temptation to remit such labor. Whether the innovating temper of the times is excessive, or threatens in its probable extension, to become an evil on the whole, we will not undertake positively to decide. In a rational view, however, of the results
which have been realized, during the last thirty years in the religious world, (to confine ourselves to that,) we think that not much can be pronounced to be for the worse, and a great deal must be felt to be for the better. Who that contemplates the subject with an enlightened mind, would be willing, for instance, to go back to the period, when christianity was engaged for its very existence, in a struggle with a base-born scepticism-when throughout whole nominally christian communities, this holy religion was admitted to be an imposture? Or what truly prudent and virtuous citizen among us, would be willing to live, as all lived only a few years since, exposed to a torrent of liquid fire, that poured through this land unchecked; when every pious head of a family trembled, lest one out of every three or four of his own beloved offspring, should grow up a drunkard, die a drunkard, and receive a drunkard's doon? The change of our manners and our creed, in only this one particular, would justify all the hazard incurred by the innoFating spirit of this whole age. Let the friends of humanity go on in their toils and sacrifices, let them extend their inroads into the empire of darkness, and cruelty, and lust; let them see not only families; and neighborhoods, and societies, and nations, but the world itself made happy by expelling the causes of ignorance and crime from the earth. It will be a spectacle worthy of their labors.
3. A spirit of liberality is a trait of the present times. This term is here used in its proper authorized sense, as denoting that which is catholic and enlarged, as embracing other interests than our own, and in respect to religion, other denominations than ourown, viz. the whole extent of evangelical opinions. It is used as opposed to that which is selfish, contracted, or sectarian ; and in respect to religion, as opposed to exclusive pretensions to truth and piety in any one christian community. We do not of course employ the term, in the manner, in which some few religionists have employed it, claiming that they only possess this virtue, and charging all others, who entertain different views from their own with illiberality -a claim and a charge which to us sound very much like a contradiction. Perhaps they find this trait in themselves, in the laxie ty of their religious opinions. But is it to be taken for granted, that they only are liberal who hold a loose, corrupt doctrine, and they bigoted who maintain a strict, and holy one? What right these persons have, from their avowed religious system in other respects, to entertain so favorable a view of themselves, and so unfavorable an opinion of others, aside from the temper with which they inculcate their system, or represent that of their opponents, it would be difficult, as well as needless to tell. With this sickly and spurious liberality let not our minds be contaminated.
That compared with former times, there exists much liberality of sentiment, is happily true. In the opinions and in the intercourse of the members of different persuasions, all must have noti