When [Pg 3] such is the hereditary religion handed down from generation to generation, it cannot surprise us to observe young men of sense and spirit beginning to doubt altogether of the truth of the system in which they have been brought up, and ready to abandon a station which they are unable to defend.
Let us beware before it be too late. No one can say into what discredit Christianity may hereby grow, at a time when the free and unrestrained intercourse, subsisting amongst the several ranks and classes of society, so much favours the general diffusion of the sentiments of the higher orders. To a similar ignorance is perhaps in no small degree to be ascribed the success, with which Christianity has been attacked of late years in a neighbouring country.
Punishing Children for the Sins of their Parents
Had she not been wholly unarmed for the contest, however she might have been forced from her untenable posts, and compelled to disembarrass herself from her load of incumbrances, she never could have been driven altogether out of the field by her puny assailants, with all their cavils, and gibes, and sarcasms; for in these consisted the main strength of their petty artillery.
Let us beware, lest we also suffer from a like cause; nor let it be our crime and our reproach, that in schools, perhaps even in [Pg 4] Colleges, Christianity is almost if not altogether neglected. It cannot be expected, that they who are so little attentive to this great object in the education of their children, should be more so in other parts of their conduct, where less strongly stimulated by affection, and less obviously loaded with responsibility.
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Be it so. From the transient and distant view then, which we have been taking of these unassuming Christians, let us approach a little nearer, and listen to the unreserved conversation of their confidential hours. Here, if any where, the interior of the heart is laid open, and we may ascertain the true principles of their regards and aversions; the scale by which they measure the good and evil of life.
Here, however, you will discover few or no traces of Christianity. She scarcely finds herself a place amidst the many objects of their hopes, and fears, and joys, and sorrows. Grateful, perhaps, as well indeed they may be grateful for health, and talents, and affluence, and other blessings belonging to their persons and conditions in life, they scarcely reckon in the number this grand distinguishing mark of the bounty of Providence; or if they mention it at all, it is noticed coldly and formally, like one of those obsolete claims [Pg 5] to which, though but of small account in the estimate of our wealth or power, we think it as well to put in our title from considerations of family decorum or of national usage.
The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible
But what more than all the rest establishes the point in question: let their conversation take a graver turn: here at length their religion, modest and retired as it is, must be expected to disclose itself; here however you will look in vain for the religion of Jesus. Their standard of right and wrong is not the standard of the gospel: they approve and condemn by a different rule; they advance principles and maintain opinions altogether opposite to the genius and character of Christianity.
You would fancy yourself rather amongst the followers of the old philosophy; nor is it easy to guess how any one could satisfy himself to the contrary, unless, by mentioning the name of some acknowledged heretic, he should afford them an occasion of demonstrating their zeal for the religion of their country. The truth is, their opinions on these subjects are not formed from the perusal of the word of God. The Bible lies on the shelf unopened; and they would be wholly ignorant of its contents, except for what they hear occasionally at church, or for the faint traces which their memories may still retain of the lessons of their earliest infancy.
How different, nay, in many respects, how contradictory, would be the two systems of mere morals, of which the one should be formed from the commonly received maxims of the Christian world, and the other from the study of the Holy Scriptures! We are not left here to bare conjecture.
This was, in fact, the effect produced on the mind of a late ingenious writer  , of whose little work, though it bears perhaps some marks of his customary love of paradox, we must at least confess, that it exposes, in a strong point of view, the poverty of that superficial religion which has been above condemned; and that it every where displays that happy perspicuity, and grace, which so eminently characterize all the compositions of its author.
But after this willing tribute of commendation, we are reluctantly compelled to remark, that the work in question discredits the cause which it was meant to serve, by many crude and extravagant positions; from which no one can be secure who forms a hasty judgment of a deep and comprehensive subject, the several bearings and relations of which have been imperfectly surveyed; and above all, it must be lamented, that it treats the great question which it professes to discuss, rather as a matter of mere speculation, than as one wherein our everlasting interests are involved.
It were almost a waste of time to multiply arguments in order to prove how criminal the voluntary ignorance, of which we have been speaking, must appear in the sight of God. It must be confessed by all who believe that we are accountable creatures, and to such only the writer [Pg 7] is addressing himself, that we shall have to answer hereafter to the Almighty for all the means and occasions we have here enjoyed of improving ourselves, or of promoting the happiness of others.
And if, when summoned to give an account of our stewardship, we shall be called upon to answer for the use which we have made of our bodily organs, and of the means of relieving the wants and necessities of our fellow creatures; how much more for the exercise of the nobler and more exalted faculties of our nature, of invention, and judgment, and memory; and for our employment of all the instruments and opportunities of diligent application, and serious reflection, and honest decision.
And to what subject might we in all reason be expected to apply more earnestly, than to that wherein our eternal interests are at issue? When God has of his goodness vouchsafed to grant us such abundant means of instruction in that which we are most concerned to know, how great must be the guilt, and how aweful the punishment of voluntary ignorance! And why, it may be asked, are we in this pursuit alone to expect knowledge without inquiry, and success without endeavour?
The whole analogy of nature inculcates on us a different lesson, and our own judgments in matters of temporal interests and worldly policy confirm the truth of her suggestions. Bountiful as is the hand of Providence, its gifts are not so bestowed as to seduce us into indolence, but to rouse us to exertion; and no one expects to attain to the height of learning, or arts, or power, or wealth, or military glory, without vigorous resolution, and strenuous diligence, and steady perseverance. Yet we expect to be Christians [Pg 8] without labour, study, or inquiry.
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This is the more preposterous, because Christianity, being a revelation from God, and not the invention of man, discovering to us new relations, with their correspondent duties; containing also doctrines, and motives, and practical principles, and rules, peculiar to itself, and almost as new in their nature as supreme in their excellence, we cannot reasonably expect to become proficients in it by the accidental intercourses of life, as one might learn insensibly the maxims of worldly policy, or a scheme of mere morals.
The diligent perusal of the Holy Scriptures would discover to us our past ignorance. We should cease to be deceived by superficial appearances, and to confound the Gospel of Christ with the systems of philosophers; we should become impressed with that weighty truth, so much forgotten, and never to be too strongly insisted on, that Christianity calls on us, as we value our immortal souls, not merely in general , to be religious and moral , but specially to believe the doctrines, and imbibe the principles, and practise the precepts of Christ.
It might be to run into too great length to confirm this position beyond dispute by express quotations from Scripture. It was graciously held forth in the original promise to our first parents; it was predicted by a long continued series of prophets; the subject of their prayers, inquiries, and longing expectations. In a world, which opposed and persecuted them, it was their [Pg 9] source of peace, and hope, and consolation. At one time, the communication of it is promised as a reward; at another, the loss of it is threatened as a punishment.
And, short as is the form of prayer taught us by our blessed Saviour, the more general extension of the kingdom of Christ constitutes one of its leading petitions. With what exalted conceptions of the importance of Christianity ought we to be filled by such descriptions as these? We turn from it coldly, or at best possess it negligently, as a thing of no account or estimation.
But a due sense of its value would be assuredly impressed on us by the diligent study of the word of God, that blessed repository of divine truth [Pg 10] and consolation. Thence it is that we are to learn our obligations and our duty, what we are to believe and what to practise. And, surely, one would think it could not be required to press men to the perusal of the sacred volume. Yet, is it not undeniable that with the Bible in our houses, we are ignorant of its contents; and that hence, in a great measure, it arises, that the bulk of the Christian world know so little, and mistake so greatly, in what regards the religion which they profess?
This is not the place for inquiring at large, whence it is that those who assent to the position, that the Bible is the word of God, and who profess to rest their hopes on the Christian basis, contentedly acquiesce in a state of such lamentable ignorance. But it may not be improper here to touch on two kindred opinions, from which, in the minds of the more thoughtful and serious, this acquiescence appears to derive much secret support.
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The one is, that it signifies little what a man believes; look to his practice. The other of the same family that sincerity is all in all. It would detain us too long fully to set forth the various merits of these favourite positions, of which it is surely not the smallest excellence, that they are of unbounded application, comprehending within their capacious limits, all the errors which have been believed, and many of the most desperate crimes which have been perpetrated among men.
Never indeed was there a principle more general in its use, more sovereign in its potency. How does its beautiful simplicity also, and compendious brevity, give it rank before the laborious subtleties of Bellarmine! Clement, and Ravaillac, and other worthies of a similar stamp, from whose purity of intention the world has hitherto withheld its due tribute of applause, would here have found a ready plea; and their injured innocence shall now at length receive its full though tardy vindication.
The conclusion cannot be eluded; no man was ever more fully persuaded of the innocence of any action, than these men were, that the horrid deed they were about to perpetrate was not lawful merely, but highly meritorious. Thus Clement and Ravaillac being unquestionably sincere, they were therefore indubitably innocent.
Nay, the absurdity of this principle might be shewn to be even greater than what has yet been stated. It would not be going too far to assert, that whilst it scorns the defence of petty villains, of those who still retain the sense of good and evil, it holds forth, like some well frequented sanctuary, a secure asylum to those more finished criminals, who, from long habits of wickedness, are lost alike to the perception as to the practice of virtue; and that it selects a seared conscience and a heart become callous to all moral distinctions as the special objects of its care.
Nor is it only in prophane history that instances like these are to be found, of persons committing the greatest crimes with a sincere conviction of the rectitude of their conduct. A principle like this must then be abandoned, and the advocates for sincerity must be compelled to restore this abused term to its genuine signification, and to acknowledge that it must imply honesty of mind, and the faithful use of the means of knowledge and of improvement, the desire of being instructed, humble inquiry, impartial consideration, and unprejudiced judgment.
It is to these we would earnestly call you; to these ever to be accompanied with fervent prayers for the divine blessing Scripture every where holds forth the most animating promises. How deep will be our guilt if we slight all these benevolent offers.
Let us awaken to a true sense of our situation. We have every consideration to alarm our fears, or to animate our industry. How soon may the brightness of our meridian sun be darkened! Or, should the long suffering of God still continue to us the mercies which we so much abuse, it will only aggravate our crime, and in the end enhance our punishment. The time of reckoning will at length arrive.
And when finally summoned to the bar of God, to give an account of our stewardship, what plea can we have to urge in our defence, if we remain willingly and [Pg 14] obstinately ignorant of the way which leads to life, with such transcendent means of knowing it, and such urgent motives to its pursuit? After considering the defective notions of the importance of Christianity in general , which prevail among the higher orders of the Christian world, the particular misconceptions which first come under our notice respect the corruption and weakness of human nature.
This is a topic on which it is possible that many of those, into whose hands the present work shall fall, may not have bestowed much attention. If the case be so, it may be requisite to intreat them to lend a patient and a serious ear. The subject is of the deepest import.
We should not go too far if we were to assert, that it lies at the very root of all true Religion, and still more, that it is eminently the basis and ground-work of Christianity. So far as the writer has had an opportunity of remarking, the generality of professed Christians among the higher classes, either altogether overlook or deny, or at least greatly extenuate the corruption and weakness here in question.
They own that it is too often in vain that you inform the understanding, and convince the judgment. They admit that you do not thereby reform the hearts of men. Though they know their duty, they will not practice it; no not even when you have forced them to acknowledge that the path of virtue is that also of real interest, and of solid enjoyment. But though these effects of human depravity are every where acknowledged and lamented, we must not expect to find them traced to their true origin.
Prepare yourself to hear rather of frailty and infirmity, of petty transgressions, of occasional failings, of sudden surprisals, and of such other qualifying terms as may serve to keep out of view the true source of the evil, and without shocking the understanding, may administer consolation [Pg 16] to the pride of human nature. The bulk of professed Christians are used to speak of man as of a being, who, naturally pure, and inclined to all virtue, is sometimes, almost involuntary, drawn out of the right course, or is overpowered by the violence of temptation.
Vice with them is rather an accidental and temporary, than a constitutional and habitual distemper; a noxious plant, which, though found to live and even to thrive in the human mind, is not the natural growth and production of the soil. Far different is the humiliating language of Christianity. From it we learn that man is an apostate creature, fallen from his high original, degraded in his nature, and depraved in his faculties; indisposed to good, and disposed to evil; prone to vice, it is natural and easy to him; disinclined to virtue, it is difficult and laborious; that he is tainted with sin, not slightly and superficially, but radically and to the very core.
These are truths which, however mortifying to our pride, one would think if this very corruption itself did not warp the judgment none would be hardy enough to attempt to controvert.
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I know not any thing which brings them home so forcibly to my own feelings, as the consideration of what still remains to us of our primitive dignity, when contrasted with our present state of moral degradation,. Examine first with attention the natural powers and faculties of man! But we have indulged too long in these delightful speculations; a sad reverse presents itself on our survey of the actual state of man, when, from viewing his natural powers, we follow him into practice , and see the uses to which he applies them.
Take in the whole of the prospect, view him in every age, and climate, and nation, in every condition and period of society. Where now do you discover the characters of his exalted nature? How do anger, and envy, and hatred, and revenge, spring up in his wretched bosom! How is he a slave to the meanest of his appetites!
What fatal propensities does he discover to evil! What inaptitude to good! Look not to the illiterate and the vulgar, but to the learned and refined. Form not your ideas from the conduct of the less restrained and more licentious; you will turn away with disgust and shame from the allowed and familiar habits of the decent and the moral. Now direct your view to another quarter, to the inhabitants of a new hemisphere, where the baneful practices and contagious example of the old world had never travelled. Surely, among these children of nature we may expect to find those virtuous tendencies, for which we have hitherto looked in vain.