Page images
[ocr errors]

Decline of Christianity shown, by a comparative View of the Religion of the Great in

preceding Ages. If the general position of this little tract be allowed, namely, that religion is at present in no very flourishing state among those whose example, from the high ground on which they stand, guides and governs the rest of mankind, it will not be denied by those who are ever so superficially acquainted with the history of our country, that this has not always been the case.

Those who make a fair comparison must allow, that however the present age may be improved in other important and valuable advantages, yet that there is but little appearance remaining among the great and the powerful of that “righteousness which exalteth a nation.” They must confess that there has been a moral revolution in the national manners and principles, very little analogous to that great political one which we hear so much and so justly extolled. That our public virtue bears little proportion to our public blessings ; and that our religion has decreased in a pretty exact proportion to our having secured the means of enjoying it.

That the antipodes to wrong are hardly ever right, was very strikingly illustrated about the middle of last century, when the fiery and indiscreet zeal of one party was made a pretext for the profligate impiety of the other ; who, to the bad principle which dictated a depraved conduct, added the bad taste of being proud of it ;—when even the least abandoned were absurdly apprehensive that an appearance of decency might subject them to the charge of fanaticism, a charge in which they took care to involve real piety as well as enthusiastic pretence, till it became the general fashion to avoid no sin but hypocrisy, to dread no imputation but that of seriousness, and to be more afraid of the virtues which procure a good reputation than of every vice which ever earned a bad one. Party was no longer confined to political distinctions, but became a part of morals, and was carried into religion. The more profligate of the court party began to connect the idea of devotion with that of republicanism; and to prove their aversion to the one, thought they could never cast too much ridicule upon the other. The public taste became debauched ; and to be licentious in principle was thought by many to be the best way of making their court to the restored monarch, and of proving their abhorrence of the hypocri, tical side. And Poems by a person of honour, the phrase of the day to designate a fashionable author, were often scandalous offences against modesty and virtue.

It was not till piety was thus unfortunately brought into disrepute, that persons of condition thought it made their sincerity, their abilities, or their good breeding questionable, to appear openly on the side of religion. A strict attachment to piety did not subtract from a great reputation. Men were not thought the worse lawyers, generals, ministers, legislators, or historians, for believing, and even defending, the religion of their country. The gallant Sir Philip Sidney, the rash but heroic Essex, the politic and sagacious Burleigh, the all-accomplished Falkland, * not only publicly

* Lord Falkland assisted the great Chillingworth in his incomparable work, " The Religion of a Protestant."

owned their belief in Christianity, but even wrote some things of a religious nature.* These instances, and many others which might be adduced, are not, it will be allowed, selected from among contemplative recluses, grave divines, or authors by profession, but from the busy, the active, and the illustrious; from public characters, from men of strong passions beset with great temptations ; distinguished actors on the stage of life ; and whose respective claims to the title of fine gentlemen, brave soldiers, or able statesmen, have never been called in question.

What would the Hales, and the Clarendons, and the Somersest have said, had they been told that the time was at no great distance when that sacred book, for which they thought it no derogation from their wisdom or their dignity, to entertain the profoundest reverence; the book which they made the rule of their faith, the object of their most serious study, and the foundation of their eternal hope ; that this book would one day be of little more use to men in high public stations, than to be the instrument of an oath ; and that the sublimest rites of the Christian religion would soon be considered as little more than a necessary qualification for a place, or the legal preliminary to an office ?

This indeed is the boasted period of free inquiry and liberty of thinking : but it is the peculiar character of the present age, that its mischiefs often assume the most alluring forms; and that the most alarming evils not only

; look so like goodness as to be often mistaken for it, but are sometimes mixed up with so much real good, as often to disguise, though never to counteract, their malignity. Under the beautiful mask of an enlightened philosophy, all religious restraints are set at nought; and some of the deadliest wounds have been aimed at Christianity, in works written in avowed vindication of the most amiable of all the Christian principles +. Even the prevalence of a liberal and warm philanthropy, is secretly sapping the foundation of Christian morals, because many of its champions allow themselves to live in the open violation of the severer duties of justice and sobriety, while they are contending for the gentler ones of charity and beneficence.

The strong and generous bias in favour of universal toleration, noble as the principle itself is, has engendered a dangerous notion, that all error is innocent. Whether it be owing to this, or to whatever other cause, it is certain that the discriminating features of the Christian religion are every day growing into less repute; and it is become the fashion, even among the better sort, to evade, to lower, or to generalize, its most distinguishing peculiarities.

There is so little of the Author of Christianity left in his own religion,

* See that equally elegant and authentic work, “ The Apecdotes of Royal and Noble Authors :" by Horace Walpole, afterwards Earl of Oxford.

+ This consummate statesman was not only remarkable for a strict attendance on the public duties of religion, but for maintaining them with equal exactness in his family, at a period too, when religion was most discountenanced.

See particularly “ Voltaire sur la Tolerance." This is a common artifice of that insidious author. In this instance he has made use of the popularity he obtained in the fanatical tragedy at Toulouse, (the murder of Calas) to discredit, though in the most guarded manner, Chris tianity itself; degrading martyrdoms, denying the truth of the pagan persecutions, &c. And by mixing some truths with many falsehoods, by assuming an amiable candour, and professing to serve the interests of goodness, he treacherously contrives to leave on the mind of the unguarded reader impressions the most unfavourable to Christianity.

[ocr errors]

that an apprehensive believer is ready to exclaim, with the woman at the sepulchre, They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.” The locality of hell and the existence of an evil spirit are annihilated, or considered as abstract ideas. When they are alluded to, it is periphrastically; or they are discontinued, not on the ground of their being awful and terrible, but they are set aside as topics too vulgar for the polished, too illiberal for the learned, and as savouring too much of credulity for the enlightened.

While we glory in having freed ourselves from the trammels of human authority, are we not turning our liberty into licentiousness, and wantonly struggling to throw off the Divine authority too ? Freedom of thought is the glory of the human mind, while it is confined within its just and sober limits; but though we may think ourselves accountable for opinions at no earthly tribunal, yet it should be remembered that thoughts as well as actions are amenable at the bar of God: and though we may rejoice that the tyranny of the spiritual Procrustes is so far annihilated, that we are in no danger of having our opinions lopped or lengthened till they are brought to fit the measure of human caprice, yet there is still a standard by which not only actions are weighed, but opinions are judged; and every sentiment which is clearly inconsistent with the revealed will of God, is as much throwing off his dominion as the breach of any of his moral precepts. This cuts up by the roots that popular and independent phrase, “ that thoughts are free, for in this view we are no more at liberty to indulge opinions in opposition to the express word of God, than we are at liberty to infringe practically on his commandments.

There is then surely one test by which it is no mark of intolerance to try the principles of men, namely, the Law and the Testimony; and on applying to this touchstone, it is impossible not to lament, that, while a more generous spirit governs our judgment, a purer principle does not seem to regulate our lives. May it not be said, that while we are justly commended for thinking charitably of the opinions of others, we seem, in return, as if we were desirous of furnishing them with an opportunity of exercising their candour by the laxity of principle in which we indulge ourselves? If the hearts of men were as firmly united to each other by the bond of charity as some pretend, they could not fail of being united to God also by one common principle of piety. And Christian piety furnishes the only certain source of all charitable judgment, as well as of all virtuous conduct.

Instead of abiding by the salutary precept of "judging no man," it is the fashion to exceed our commission, aud to fancy everybody to be in a safe state. “ Judge not” is the precise limit of our rule. There is no more encouragement to judge falsely on the side of worldly candour, than there is to judge harshly on the side of Christian charity. In forming our notions we have to choose between the Bible and the world, between the rule and the practice. Where these do not agree, it is left to the judgment of believers, at least, by which we are to decide. But we never act, in religious concerns, by the same rule of common sense and equitable judgment which governs us on other occasions. In weighing any commodity, its weight is determined by some generally allowed standard ; and if the commodity be heavier or lighter than the standard weight, we add



to, or take from it; but we never break, or clip, or reduce the weight to suit the thing we are weighing ; because the common consent of mankind has agreed that the one shall be considered as the standard to ascertain the value of the other. But, in weighing our principles by the standard of the gospel, we do just the reverse. Instead of bringing our opinions and actions to the “balance of the sanctuary,” to determine and rectify their comparative deficiencies, we lower and reduce the standard of the scripture doctrines till we have accommodated them to our own purposes ; so that, instead of trying others and ourselves by God's unerring rule, we try the truth of God's rule by its conformity or non-conformity to our own depraved notions and corrupt practices.

CHAPTER II. Benevolence allowed to be the reigning virtue, but not exclusively the virtue of the present

age. Benevolence not the wbole of religion, though one of its most characteristic features. Whether benevolence proceeds from a religious principle, will be more infallibly known by the general disposition of time, fortune, and the common habits of life, than from a few occasional acts of bounty.

To all the remonstrance and invective of the preceding chapter, there will not fail to be opposed that which we hear every day so loudly insisted on -the decided superiority of the present age in other and better respects. It will be said, that even those who neglect the outward forms of religion, exhibit however the best proofs of the best principles ; that the unparalleled instances of charity, of which we are continual witnesses ; that the many striking acts of public bounty, and the various new and noble improvements in this shining virtue, justly entitle the present age to be called, by way of eminence, the age of benevolence.

It is with the liveliest joy I acknowledge the delightful truth. Liberality flows with a full tide through a thousand channels. There is scarcely a newspaper but records some meeting of men of fortune, for the most salutary purposes.

The noble and numberless structures for the relief of distress, which are the ornament and the glory of our metropolis, proclaim a species of munificence unknown to former ages. Subscriptions, not only to hospitals, but to various other valuable institutions, are obtained almost as soon as solicited. And who but must wish that these beautiful monuments of benevolence may become every day more numerous and more extended ?

Yet, with all these allowed and obvious excellences, it is not quite clear whether something too much has not been said of the liberality of the present age, in a comparative view with that of those ages which preceded it. A general alteration of habits and manners has at the same time multiplied public bounties and private distress; and it is scarcely a paradox, to say that there was probably less misery when there was less munificence.

If an increased benevolence now ranges through and relieves a wider compass of distress ; yet still, if those examples of luxury and dissipation which promote that distress are still more increased, this makes the good done bear little proportion to the evil promoted. If the miseries removed by the growth of charity fall, both in number and weight, far below those which are caused by the growth of vice and disorder; if we find that, though bounty is extended, yet those corruptions which make bounty so necessary are extended also, almost beyond calculation ; if it appear that, though more objects are relieved by our money, yet incomparably more are debauched by our licentiousness—the balance perhaps will not turn out so decidedly in favour of the times as we are willing to imagine.

If, then, the most valuable species of charity is that which prevents distress by preventing or lessening vice, the greatest and most inevitable cause of want, —we ought not so highly to exalt the bounty of the great in the present day, in preference to that broad shade of protection, patronage, and maintenance, which the wide-spread bounty of their forefathers stretched out over whole villages, I had almost said, over whole provinces. When a few noblemen in a county, like their own stately oaks, (paternal oaks! which were not often set upon a card,) extended their sheltering branches to shield all the underwood of the forest—when there existed a kind of passive charity, a negative sort of benevolence, which did good of itself, and, without effort, exertion, or expense, produced the effect of all, and performed the best functions of bounty, though it did not aspire to the dignity of its name—it was simply this :-great people staid at home; and the sober pomp and orderly magnificence of a noble family, residing at their own castle great part of the year, contributed in the most natural way to the maintenance of the poor; and in a good degree prevented their distress, which, it must, however, thankfully be confessed, it is the laudable object of modern bounty to relieve. A man of fortune might not then, it is true, so often dine in public for the benefit of the poor; but the poor were more regularly and comfortably fed with the abundant crumbs which then fell from the rich man's table. Whereas it cannot be denied that the prevailing mode of living has pared real hospitality to the very quick ; and, though the remark may be thought ridiculous, it is a material disadvantage to the poor that the introduction of the modern style of luxury has rendered the remains of the most costly table but of small value.

But even allowing the boasted superiority of modern benevolence, still it will not be inconsistent with the object of the present design, to inquire whether the diffusion of this branch of charity, though the most lovely offspring of religion, be yet any positive proof of the prevalence of religious principle ? and whether it be not the fashion rather to consider benevolence as a substitute for Christianity than as an evidence of it?

It seems to be one of the reigning errors among the better sort, to reduce all religion into benevolence, and all benevolence into alms-giving. The wide and comprehensive idea of Christian charity is compressed into the slender compass of a little pecuniary relief. This species of benevolence is indeed a bright gem among the ornaments of a Christian ; but by no means furnishes all the jewels of his crown, which derives its lustre from the associated radiance of every Christian grace. Besides, the genuine virtues are all of the same family ; and it is only by being seen in company with each other, and with piety, their common parent, that they are certainly known to be legitimate.

But it is the property of the Christian virtues, that, like all other amiable members of the same family, while each is doing its own parVOL. I.


« PreviousContinue »