« PreviousContinue »
other instances, that the deepest metaphysician,* the greatest astronomer, the sublimest poet, the acutest reasoner, the politest writer, the most consummate philosopher, and the profoundest investigator of nature, which this or perhaps any country has produced, have all written on such subjects as are analogous to the business of the Lord's day. Such authors as these, even wits, philosophers, and men of the world, must acknowledge that it is not bigotry to read, nor enthusiasm to commend. Of this illustrious group, only onet was a clergyman, which to a certain class of readers will be a strong recommendation: though it is a little hard that the fastidiousness of modern taste should undervalue the learned and pious labours of divines, only because they are professional. In every other function, a man's compositions are not the less esteemed because they peculiarly belong to his more immediate business. Blackstone's opinions in jurisprudence are in high reputation, though he was a lawyer; Sydenham is still consulted as oracular in fevers, in spite of his having been a physician; and the Commentaries of Cæsar are of established authority in military operations, notwithstanding he was a soldier.
AN ESTIMATE OF THE RELIGION OF THE
(FIRST PRINTED, WITHOUT A NAME, IN 1791.)
There was never found in any age of the world, either philosophy, or sect, or religion, or law, or discipline, which did so highly exalt the public good as the Christian Faith.-LORD BACON.
THE general design of these pages is to offer some cursory remarks on the present state of religion among a great part of the polite and the fashionable; not only among that description of persons who, whether from disbelief or whatever other cause, avowedly neglect the duties of Christianity; but among that more decent class also, who, while they acknowledge their belief of its truth by a public profession, and are not inattentive to any of its forms, yet exhibit little of its spirit in their general temper and conduct. It is designed to show that Christianity, like its divine Author, is not only denied by those who in so many words disown their submission to its authority, but is betrayed by the still more treacherous disciple, even while he cries, "Hail, Master!"
For this visible declension of piety various reasons have been assigned, some of which, however, do not seem fully adequate to the effects ascribed to them. The author of a late popular pamphlet‡ has accounted for the increased profligacy of the common people, by ascribing it, very justly, to the increased dissoluteness of their superiors. And who will deny what
Locke, Newton, Milton, Butler, Addison, Bacon, Boyle.
† Dr. Joseph Butler, bishop of Durham, author of the " Analogy of Natural and Revealed Religion."
"Hints to an Association for preventing Vice and Immorality, written by a Nobleman of the highest rank,"
he farther affirms-that the general conduct of high and low receives a great tincture of depravity from the growing neglect of public worship? So far I most cordially agree with the noble author. Nothing can be more obvious, than that the disuse of public worship is naturally followed by a neglect of all religious duties. Energies, which are not called out into action, almost necessarily die in the mind. The soul, no less than the body, requires its stated repairs and regular renovations. And from the sluggish and procrastinating spirit of man, that religious duty to which no fixed time is assigned, is seldom, it is to be feared, performed at all.*
I must, however, take leave to dissent from the opinion of the noble author, that the too common desertion of persons of rank from the service of the Establishment is occasioned in general, as he intimates, by their disapprobation of the liturgy; as it may more probably be supposed, that the far greater part of them are deterred from going to church by motives widely removed from speculative objections and conscientious scruples.
It would be quite foreign to my present purpose to enter upon the question of the superior utility of a form of prayer for public worship. Most sincerely attached to the Establishment myself, not, as far as I am able to judge, from prejudice, but from a fixed and settled conviction; I regard its institutions with a veneration at once affectionate and rational. Never need a Christian, except when his own heart is strangely indisposed, fail to derive benefit from its ordinances; and he may bless the overruling providence of God, that, in this instance, the natural variableness and inconstancy of human opinion is, as it were, fixed and settled, and hedged in by a stated service so pure, so evangelical, and which is enriched by such a large infusion of sacred scripture.
If so many among us contemn the service as having been, individually, to us fruitless and unprofitable, let us inquire whether the blessing may not be withheld because we are not fervent in asking it. If we do not find a suitable humiliation in the confession, a becoming earnestness in the petitions, a congenial joy in the adoration, a corresponding gratitude in the thanksgivings, it is because our hearts do not accompany our words; it is because we rest in "the form of godliness," and are contented to remain destitute of its "power." If we are not duly interested when the select portions of scripture are read to us, it is because we do not as "newborn babes desire the sincere milk of the word, that we may grow thereby."
Perhaps there has not been, since the age of the apostles, a church upon earth in which the public worship was so solemn, and so cheerful; so simple, yet so sublime; so full of fervour, at the same time so free from enthusiasm; so rich in the gold of Christian antiquity, yet so astonishingly exempt from its dross. That it has imperfections, we do not deny; but what are they, compared with its general excellence? They are as the spots on the sun's disk, which a sharp observer may detect, but which neither diminish the warmth, nor obscure the brightness.
But if those imperfections, which are inseparable from all human institutions, are to be alleged as reasons for abstaining to attend on the service of the Established Church; we must, on the same principle, and on still stronger grounds, abstain from all public worship whatever; and
*On this subject, see Dr. Johnson's Life of Milton.
indeed it must be confessed, that the persons of whom we are now speaking are very consistent in this matter.
But the difference of opinion here intimated, is not so much about the liturgy itself, as the imaginary effects attributed to it in thinning the pews of our people of fashion. The slightest degree of observation serves to contradict this assertion. Those, however, who, with the noble author, maintain the other opinion, may satisfy their doubts by inquiring, whether the regular and systematic absentees from church are chiefly to be found among the thinking, the reading, the speculative, and the scrupulous part of mankind.
Even the most negligent attendant on public worship must know, that the obnoxious creed, to whose malignant potency this general desertion is ascribed by the noble author, is never read above three or four Sundays in the year; and even, allowing the validity of the objections brought against it, that does not seem a very adequate reason for banishing the most scrupulous and tender consciences from church on the remaining eight-andforty Sundays of the calendar.
Besides, there is one test which is absolutely unequivocal; this creed is never read at all in the afternoon, any more than the litany, that other great source of offence and supposed desertion; and yet, with all these multiplied reasons for their attendance, do we see the conscientious crowds of the high-born, who abstain from morning service through their repugnance to subscribe to the dogmas of Athanasius, or the more orthodox clauses of the morning litany, do we see them, I say, flocking to the evening service, impatient for the exercise of that devotion which had been obstructed by these two objectionable portions of the liturgy? Do we sce them eager to explain the cause of their morning absence, and zealous to vindicate their piety by assiduously attending when the reprobated portions are omitted? So far from it, is it not pretty evident that the general quarrel (with some few exceptions) of those who habitually absent themselves from public worship, is not with the creed, but the commandments? With such, to reform the prayer-book would go but a little way, unless the New Testament could be also abridged. Cut, and pare, and prune the service of the church ever so much, still Christianity itself will be found full of formidable objections. Should the church even give up her abstruse creeds, it would avail but little, unless the Bible would also expunge those rigorous laws which not only prohibit sinful actions, but corrupt inclinations. And, to speak honestly, I do not see how such persons as habitually infringe the laws of virtue and sobriety, and who yet are men of acute sagacity, accustomed on other subjects to a consistent train of reasoning; who see consequences in their causes; who behold practical self-denial necessarily involved in the sincere habit of religious observances-I do see how, with respect to such men, any doctrines reformed, any redundancies lopped, any obscurities brightened, could effect the object of this author's very benevolent and christian wish.
Religious duties are often neglected upon more consistent grounds than the friends of religion are willing to allow. They are often discontinued, not as repugnant to the understanding, not as repulsive to the judgment, but as hostile to a licentious life. And when a prudent man, after having entered into a solemn convention, finds that he is living in a constant
breach of every article of the treaty he has engaged to observe, one cannot much wonder at his getting out of the hearing of the heavy artillery which he knows is planted against him, and against every one who lives in the allowed infraction of the covenant into which every Christian has entered. For a man of sense, who should acknowledge the truth of the doctrine, would find himself obliged to submit to the force of the precept. It is not easy to be a comfortable sinner, without trying, at least, to be a confirmed unbeliever. And, as that cannot be achieved by a wish, the next expedient is to shun the recollection of that belief, and to forget that of which we cannot be ignorant. The smallest remains of faith would embitter a life of libertinism, and to be frequently reminded of the articles of that faith would disturb the ease induced by a neglect of all observances. While to him who retains any impression of Christianity, the wildest festivals of intemperance will be converted into the terrifying feast of Damocles.
That many a respectable nonconformist is kept out of the pale of the Establishment by some of the causes noticed by the noble author, cannot be questioned, and a matter of regret it is. But these, however, are often sober thinkers, serious inquirers, conscientious reasoners, whose object, we may charitably believe, is truth, however they may be deceived as to its nature; but that the same objections-banish the great and the gay, is not equally evident. Thanks to the indolence and indifference of the times, it is not dogmas or doctrines, it is not abstract reasonings or puzzling propositions, it is not perplexed argument or intricate metaphysics, which can now disincline from Christianity; so far from it, they cannot even allure to unbelief. Infidelity itself, with all that strong and natural bias which selfishness and appetite entertain in its favour, if it appear in the grave and scholastic form of speculation, argument, or philosophical deduction, may lie almost as quietly on the shelf as the volumes of its most able antagonist; and the cobwebs are almost as seldom brushed from Hobbes as from Hooker. No: prudent scepticism has wisely studied the temper of the times, and skilfully felt the pulse of this relaxed, and indolent, and selfish age. It prudently accommodated itself to the reigning character, when it adopted sarcasm instead of reasoning, and preferred a sneer to an argument. It discreetly judged, that, if it would now gain proselytes, it must show itself under the bewitching form of a profane bon-mot; must be interwoven in the texture of some amusing history, written with the levity of a romance, and the point and glitter of an epigram; it must embellish the ample margin with some offensive anecdote or impure allusion, and decorate impiety with every loose and meretricious ornament which a corrupt imagination can invent. It must break up the old flimsy system into little mischievous aphorisms, ready for practical purposes; it must divide the rope of sand into little portable parcels, which the shallowest wit can comprehend, and the shortest memory carry away.
Philosophy therefore (as Unbelief, by a patent of its own creation, has lately been pleased to call itself) will not do nearly so much mischief to the present age as its primitive apostles intended; since it requires time, application, and patience, to peruse the reasoning veterans of the sceptic school; and these are talents not now very severely devoted to study of any sort, by those who give the law to fashion; especially since, as it was hinted above, the same principles may be acquired on cheaper terms, and
the reputation of being philosophers obtained without the sacrifices of pleasure for the severities of study; since the industry of our literary chemists has extracted the spirit from the gross substance of the old unvendible poison, and exhibited it in the volatile essence of a few sprightly sayings.
If, therefore, in this voluptuous age, when a frivolous and relaxing dissipation has infected our very studies, infidelity will not be at the pains of deep research and elaborate investigation, even on such subjects as are congenial to its affections, and promotive of its object; it is vain to expect that Christianity will be more engaging, either as an object of speculation, or as a rule of practice; since it demands a still stronger exertion of those energies which the gay world is not at the pains to exercise, even on the side they approve. For the evidences of Christianity require attention to be comprehended, no less than its doctrines require humility to be received, and its precepts self-denial to be obeyed.
Will it then be uncharitable to pronounce, that the leading mischief, not which thins our churches, (for that is not the evil I propose to consider,) but which pervades our whole character, and gives the colour to our general conduct, is practical irreligion? an irreligion not so much opposed to a speculative faith, not so much in hostility to the evidences of Christianity, as to that spirit, temper, and behaviour, which Christianity inculcates.
On this practical irreligion it is proposed to offer a few hints. After attempting to show, by a comparison with the religion of the great in preceding ages, that there is a visible decline of piety among the higher ranks; that even those more liberal spirits who neglect not many of the great duties of benevolence, yet hold the severer obligations of piety in no esteem-I shall proceed, though perhaps with too little method, to remark on the notorious effects of the decay of this religious principle, as it corrupts our mode of education, infects domestic conduct, spreads the contagion downwards among servants and inferiors, and influences our general manners, habits, and conversation.
But what it is here proposed principally to insist on is, that this defect of religious principle is almost equally fatal, as to all the ends and purposes of genuine piety, whether it appear in the open contempt and defiance of all sacred institutions, or under the more decent veil of external observances, unsupported by such a conduct as is analogous to the Christian profession.
I shall proceed with a few remarks on a third class of fashionable characters, who profess to acknowledge Christianity as a perfect system of morals, while they deny its Divine authority; and conclude with some slight animadversions on the opinion which these modish Christians maintain, that morality is the whole of religion.
It must be confessed, however, that manners and principles act reciprocally on each other; and are, by turns, cause and effect. For instance, the increased relaxation of morals produces the increased neglect of infusing religious principles in the education of youth; which effect becomes, in its turn, a cause; and in due time, when that cause comes to operate, helps on the decline of manners.