Page images
PDF
EPUB

Pascal has proved that as much rhetoric, and logic too, may be shown in defending revelation, as in attacking it. His geometrical spirit was not likely to take up with any proofs but such as came as near to demonstration as the nature of the subject would admit. Erasmus, in his writings on the Ignorance of the Monks, and the Provincial Letters on the Fallacies of the Jesuits, while they exhibit as entire a freedom from bigotry, exhibit also as much pointed wit, and as much sound reasoning, as can be found in the whole mass of modern philosophy.*

But while the young adopt the opinion from one class of writers, that religious men are weak men, they acquire from another class a notion that they are ridiculous. And this opinion, by mixing itself with their common notions, and deriving itself from their very amusements, is the more mischievous, as it is imbibed without suspicion, and entertained without resistance.

One common medium through which they take this false view, is, those favourite works of wit and humour, so captivating to youthful imaginations, where no small part of the author's success perhaps has been owing to his dexterously introducing a pious character with so many virtues, that it is impossible not to love him; yet tinctured with so many absurdities, that it is equally impossible not to laugh at him. The reader's memory will furnish him with too many instances of what is here meant. The slightest touches of a witty malice can make the best character ridiculous. It is effected by any little awkwardness, absence of mind, an obsolete phrase, a formal pronunciation, a peculiarity of gesture. Or if such a character be brought, by unsuspecting honesty and credulous goodness, into some foolish scrape, it will stamp on him an impression of ridicule so indelible, that all his worth shall not be able to efface it; and the young, who do not always separate their ideas very carefully, shall ever after, by this early and false association, conceive of piety as having something essentially ridiculous in itself.

But one of the most infallible arts by which the inexperienced are engaged on the side of irreligion, is that popular air of candour, goodnature, and toleration, which it so invariably puts on. While sincere piety is often accused of moroseness and severity, because it cannot hear the doctrines on which it founds its eternal hopes derided without emotion ; indifference and unbelief purchase the praise of candour at an easy price, because they neither suffer grief nor express indignation at hearing the most awful truths ridiculed, or the most solemn obligations set at nought. They do not engage on equal terms. The infidel appears good-humoured

a

exccutioner, was considered as a privilege so little desirable, that it probably had not the glory of converting one cross road into a cemetery. It is to the credit of this country that fewer copies of this work were sold than perhaps ever was the case with a writer of so inuch eminence. A more impotent act of wickedness has seldom been achieved, or one which has had the glory of making fewer persons wicked or miserable. That cold and cheerless oblivion which he held out as a refuge to beings who had solaced themselves with the soothing hope of immortality, has, by a memorable retribution, overshadowed his last labour; the Essay on Suicide being already as much forgotten as he promised the best men that they themselves would be. this favourite work became at once a prey to that forgetfuluess to which he had consigned the whole human race.

* Blaise Pascal, born at Clermont in Auvergne, in 1623, and died at Paris in 1662. Few works have been more popular than his“ Lettres Provinciales,” written to ridicule the Jesuits. Pascal has been styled " Le Grand Athlète du Christianisme.”

And

from his very levity ; but the Christian cannot jest on subjects which involve his everlasting salvation.

The scoffers whom young people hear talk, and the books they hear quoted, falsely charge their own injurious opinions on Christianity, and then unjustly accuse her of being the monster they have made. They dress her up with the sword of persecution in one hand, and the flames of intolerance in the other; and then ridicule the sober-minded for worshipping an idol which their misrepresentation has rendered as malignant as Moloch. In the mean time, they affect to seize on benevolence with exclusive appropriation as their own cardinal virtue, and to accuse of a bigoted cruelty that narrow spirit which points out the perils of licentiousness, and the terrors of a future account. And yet this benevolence, with all its tender mercies, is not afraid nor ashamed to endeavour at snatching away from humble piety the comfort of a present hope, and the bright prospect of a felicity that shall have no end. It does not, however, seem a very probable means of increasing the stock of human happiness, to plunder mankind of that principle, by the destruction of which friendship is robbed of its bond, society of its security, patience of its motive, morality of its foundation, integrity of its reward, sorrow of its consolation, life of its balm, and death of its support. *

It will not, perhaps, be one of the meanest advantages of a better state, that, as the will shall be reformed, so the judgment shall be rectified ; that “evil shall no more be called good ;” nor the “churl liberal ;” nor the plunderer of our best possession, our principles, benevolent. Then it will be evident that greater injury could not be done to truth, nor greater violence to language, than by attempting to wrest from Christianity that benevolence which is, in fact, her most appropriate and peculiar attribute. —“A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another." If benevolence be “good-will to men," it was that which angeliç messengers were not thought too high to announce, nor a much higher being than angels too great to teach by his example, and to illustrate by his death. It was the criterion, the very watch word, as it were, by which he intended his religion and his followers should be distinguished. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Besides, it is the very genius of Christianity to extirpate all selfishness, on whose vacated ground benevolence naturally and necessarily plants itself.

But not to run through all the particulars which obstruct the growth of piety in young persons, I shall only name one more. They hear much declamation from the fashionable reasoners against the contracted and selfish spirit of Christianity, that it is of a sordid temper, works for pay, and looks for reward.

This jargon of French philosophy, which prates of pure disinterested goodness acting for its own sake, and equally despising punishment and

* Young persons too are liable to be misled by that extreme disingenuousness of the new philosophers, when writing on every thing and person connected with revealed religion. These authors often quote satirical poets as grave historical authorities ; for instance, because Juvenal has said that the Jews were so narrow-minded that they refused to show a spring of water, or the right road, to an inquiring traveller who was not of their religion, I make little donbt, but many an ignorant freethinker bas actually gone away with the belief that such good-natured acts of information were actually forbidden by the law of Moses.

a

disdaining recompense, indicates as little knowledge of human nature as of Christian revelation, when it addresses man as a being made up of pure intellect, without any mixture of passions, and who can be made happy without hope, and virtuous without fear. These philosophers affect to be more independent than Moses, more disinterested than Christ himself ; for “ Moses had respect to the recompense of reward ;” and Christ “ endured the cross, and despised the shame, for the joy that was set before him.”

A creature hurried away by the impulse of some impetuous inclination, is not likely to be restrained (if he be restrained at all) by a cold reflection on the beauty of virtue. If the dread of offending God, and incurring his everlasting displeasure, cannot stop him, how shall a weaker motive do it? When we see that the powerful sanctions which religion holds out are too often an ineffectual curb; to think of attaining the same end by feebler means, is as if one should expect to make a watch go the better by breaking the main-spring; nay, as absurd as if the philosopher who inculcates the doctrine should undertake, with one of his fingers, to lift an immense weight which had resisted the powers of the crane and the lever.

On calm and temperate spirits indeed, in the hour of retirement, in the repose of the passions, in the absence of temptation, virtue does seem to be her own 'adequate reward ; and very lovely are the fruits she bears in preserving health, credit, and fortune. But on how few will this principle act! and even on them how often will its operation be suspended! And though virtue for her own sake might have captivated a few hearts, which almost seem cast in a natural mould of goodness, yet no motive could, at all times, be so likely to restrain even these, (especially under the pressure of temptation,) as this simple assertion--"For all this, God will bring thee into judgment.”

It is the beauty of our religion, that it is not held out exclusively to a few select spirits ; that it is not an object of speculation, or an exercise of ingenuity, but a rule of life suited to every condition, capacity, and temper. It is the glory of the Christian religion to be, what it was the glory of every ancient philosophic system not to be, the religion of the people ; and that which constitutes its characteristic value, is its suitableness to the genius, condition, and necessities of all mankind.

For with whatsoever obscurities it has pleased God to shadow some parts of his written word, yet he has graciously ordered, that whatever is necessary should be perspicuous also: and though, as to his adorable essence, “clouds and darkness are round about him ;" yet these are not the medium through which he has left us to discover our duty. In this, as in all other points, revealed religion has a decided superiority over all the ancient systems of philosophy, which were always, in many respects, impracticable and extravagant, because not framed from observations drawn from a perfect knowledge “ of what was in man.” Whereas the whole scheme of the gospel is accommodated to real human nature ; laying open its mortal disease ; presenting its only remedy ; exhibiting rules of conduct, often difficult, indeed, but never impossible; and, where the rule was so high that the practicability seemed desperate, holding out a living pattern, to elucidate the doctrine, and to illustrate the precept ; offering everywhere the clearest notions of what we have to hope, and what we have to fear ; the strongest injunctions of what we are to believe, and the most explicit

[ocr errors]

directions of what we are to do ; with the most encouraging offers of Divine assistance for strengthening our faith, and quickening our obedience.

In short, whoever examines the wants of his own heart, and the appropriate assistance which the gospel furnishes, will find them to be two tallies which exactly correspond-an internal evidence, stronger perhaps than any other, of the truth of revelation.

This is the religion with which the ingenuous hearts of youth should be warmed, and by which their minds, while pliant, should be directed. This will afford “ a lamp to their paths,” stronger, steadier, brighter than the feeble and uncertain glimmer of a cold and comfortless philosophy.

a

a

CHAPTER IV. Other symptoms of the decline of Christianity.--No Family Religion.-Corrupt or negligent

example of Superiors.—The self-denying and evangelical virtues held in contempt.-Neglect of encouraging and promoting Religion among Servants.

It was by no means the design of the present undertaking to make a general invective on the corrupt state of manners, or even to animadvert on the conduct of the higher ranks, but inasmuch as the corruption of that conduct, and the depravation of those manners, appear to be a natural consequence of the visible decline of religion ; and as operating in their turn, as a cause, on the inferior orders of society.

Of the other obvious causes which contribute to this decline of morals, little will be said. Nor is the present a romantic attempt to restore the simplicity of primitive manners. This is too literally an age of gold, to expect that it should be so in the poetical and figurative sense. It would be unjust and absurd not to form our opinions and expectations from the present general state of society. And it would argue great ignorance of the corruption which commerce, and conquest, and riches, and arts, necessarily introduce into a state, to look for the same sober-mindedness, simplicity, and purity, among the dregs of Romulus, as the severe and simple manners of elder Rome presented.

But though it would be an attempt of desperate hardihood, to controvert that maxim of the witty bard, that

To mend the world's a vast design ; a popular aphorism, by the way, which has done no little mischief, inasmuch as, under the mask of hopelessness, it suggests an indolent acquiescence; yet to make the best of the times in which we live; to fill up the measure of our own actual, particular, and individual duties; and to take care that the age shall not be the worse for our having been cast into it, seems to be the bare dictate of common probity, and not a romantic flight of impracticable perfection.

Is it then so very chimerical to imagine that the benevolent can be sober-minded ? Is it romantic to desire that the good should be consistent? Is it absurd to fancy that what has once been practised should not now be impracticable?

It is impossible not to help regreting that it should be the general temper of many of the leading persons of that age which arrogates to itself the glorious character of the age of benevolence, to be kind, considerate, and

compassionate everywhere rather than at home; that the rich and the fashionable should be zealous in promoting religious as well as charitable institutions abroad, and yet discourage everything which looks like religion in their own families ; that they should be at a considerable expense in instructing the poor at a distance, and yet discredit piety among their own servants—those more immediate bjects of every man's attention, whom Providence has enabled to keep any; and for whose conduct he will be finally accountable, inasmuch as he may have helped to corrupt it.

Is there any degree of pecuniary bounty without-doors which can counteract the mischief of a wrong example at home, or atone for that infectious laxity of principle which spreads corruption wherever its influence extends? Is not he the best benefactor to society who sets the best example, and who does not only the most good, but the least evil ? Will not that man, however liberal, very imperfectly promote virtue in the world at large, who neglects to disseminate its principles within the immediate sphere of his own personal influence, by a correct conduct and a blameless behaviour ? Can a generous but profligate person atone by his purse for the disorders of his life? Can he expect a blessing on his bounties, while he defeats their effect by a profane or even a careless conversation ?

In moral as well as in political treatises, it is often asserted that it is a great evil to do no good: but it has not becn perhaps enough insisted on, that it is a great good to do no evil. This species of goodness is not ostentatious enough for popular declamation; and the value of this abstinence from vice is perhaps not well understood but by Christians, because it wants the ostensible brilliancy of actual performance.

But as the principles of Christianity are in no great repute, so their concomitant qualities, the evangelical virtues, are proportionably disesteemed. Let it, however, be remembered, that those secret habits of self-control, those interior and unobtrusive virtues, which excite no astonishment, kindle no emulation, and extort no praise, are at the same time the most difficult, and the most sublime ; and, if Christianity be true, will be the most graciously accepted by Him who witnesses the secret combat and the silent victory : while the splendid deeds which have the world for their witness, and immortal fame for their reward, shall perhaps cost him who achieved them less than it costs a conscientious Christian to subdue one irregular inclination; a conquest which the world will never know, and, if it did, would probably despise.

Though great actions, performed on human motives, are permitted by the supreme Disposer to be equally beneficial to society with such as are performed on purer principles; yet it is an affecting consideration, that, at the final adjustment of accounts, the politician who raised a state, or the hero who preserved it, may miss of that favour of God, which, if it was not his motive, will certainly not be his reward. And it is awful to reflect, as we visit the monuments justly raised by public gratitude, or the statues properly erected by well-earned admiration; it is awful, I say, to reflect on what may now be the unalterable condition of the illustrious object of these deserved but unavailing honours; and that he who has saved a state, may have lost his own soul!

A Christian life seems to consist of two things, almost equally difficult

« PreviousContinue »