« PreviousContinue »
outward persecution; and yet, as religion always requires to be tried, we must expect that “from among ourselves will men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them :" for " there must be heresies, that they which are of a contrary part may be made manifest.” In such cases many are “ tossed about by every wind of doctrine” till they make “shipwreck of faith and a good conscience.” Others, who are not destroyed, suffer loss, especially in the simple, affectionate, devotional frame of their spirit. If good men are injured, they are commonly beguiled : they are drawn aside by something piously specious. Any proposal, directly erroneous or sinful, would excite their alarm as well as aversion. But if the enemy comes transformed into an angel of light, they think they ought not only to receive, but welcome a heavenly visitant: if he enters with the Bible only in his hand, and claims to fix their regards to any thing on that holy ground, they feel themselves not only safe, but even following the will of God :-not considering that if, even in the Scriptures, the speculative entices us away from the practical, and the mysterious from the plain ; and something, though true and good in itself, but subordinate, engrosses the time and attention which should be supremely absorbed by repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ—his aim may be answered, and “Satan get an advantage over us.” Such per sons, acting conscientiously, become as determined as martyrs ; and continually musing upon one chosen topic, they grow as passionate as lovers, and wonder that all others are not like-minded with them.
“The worst of madmen is a saint run mad." There is not only a pride in dress, and beauty, and riches, and rank, and talent; but of npinion also: a kind of mental vanity, that seeks distinction by peculiarity ; and would draw notice by separateness : as that which stands alone is more observable, especially when noise is added to position. In this case the female is easily betrayed beyond some of the decorums of her sex; the younger will not submit to the elder; the hearer sits in judgment on the preacher; and he that is wise in his own conceit will be wiser than seven men that can render a reason. For
"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
Mushrooms, and less saleable funguses, are ordinarily found in a certain kind of rich and rank soil. When religion, from being neglected, becomes all at once the subject of general attention, many will not only be impressed, but surprised and perplexed. The light, good in itself, may for the time be too strong for the weakness of the eye, and the suddenness of the glare may dazzle rather than enlighten. It is very possible for the Church, when roused from a state of lethargy, to be in danger from the opposite extreme.
The frost of formality may be followed by the fever of enthusiasm. Whenever, indeed, there is a high degree of religious excitement, it cannot be wonderful, considering human ignorance, prejudice, and depravity, that there should be some visionary and strange ebullitions. We have witnessed some of these during the years that are past; but the day in which we now are is singular for the revival (with some perhaps perfectly new pretensions) of most of the notions that were fermented into being at the time of the Commonwealth, and which were then opposed by Owen, Baxter, and others, who had more divinity in their little finger than is to be found in the body, soul, and spirit, of many of the modern innovators and improvers, who imagine that their light is not only "the light of the sun, but the light of seven days!"
A review of history will show us that, at the return of less than half a century, some have commonly risen up eager and able to determine the times and the seasons, which the Father hath put into his own power, and which the Apostles were told it was not for them to know. And the same confidence has always been attended with the same success. No gain has ever followed the efforts worthy the time and attention expended upon them ; no addition has ever been made to the understanding of the Scriptures; no fresh data have been established from which preachers could safely argue; no practical utility has been afforded to Christians in their private walk with God. And as their documents were not capable of demonstration ; as for want of certainty they could not become principles of conduct; and as no great impression can be long maintained on the public mind that is not based on obvious truth ; the noise of the warfare after a while has always died away, and left us with the conviction that there is no prophet among us; nor any that telleth how long."
Some prove, in their spiritual genealogy, a descent from Reuben, of whom the dying father said, “ unstable as water, thou shalt not excel." Yet they may strike, and produce a temporary impression in their favour, especially in a country like this; a country proverbial for its credulity, and its more than Athenian rage for something new, whatever be the nature of it. In England
("England, with all thy faults I love thee still
and I can feel Thy follias too").
m England, it has been said by a satirical yet just observer, that "any monster will make a man:" that is, be the means of rendering him renowned or rich. Who can question this for a moment, that has patience to mortify himself as a Briton by reflection and review? Take prodigies. Dwarfs, giants, unnatural births, deformities—the more hideous, the more repelling the spectacles, the more attractive ac popular have they always been. Take empiricisms. Their name is Legion ; from animal' magnetism and the metallic tractors, down to the last infallible remedy for general or specific complaints ; all attested and recommended by the most unexceptionable authorities, especially in high life! Take the feats which have been announced for exhibition. Whatever the promiser has engaged to perform, whether to walk upon the water, or draw himself into a bottle, what large crowds have been drawn together at the time appointed, and with no few of the better sort of people always among them! How has learning been trifled with and degraded ! Two or three insulated facts, and a few doubtful or convertible appearances, have been wrought up into a SCIENCE ; and some very clever men have advocated its claims to zealous belief, and contrived to puzzle the opponents they could not convince. In the article of preaching, what manœuvres of popularity have not been successfully tried, till there seems hardly any thing left for an experimenter -unless to vociferate with his heels in the air- This would certainly produce greater congregations than any which have been witnessed—and who could deny that there would be something in the case preter-natural ?
But what exemplifications, had we leisure to pursue them, should we find in the article of religious absurdity and extravagance! Has any thing been ever broached with confidence that has not gained considerable attention? Did not the effusions of a Brothers, who died where only he should have lived, in confinement for madness, secure numerous believers and admirers ? Had he not defenders from the press ? Did he not obtain the notice of a very learned senator in the House of Commons ? And as to the Exeter prophetess, without any one quality to recommend her but ignorance, impudence, and blasphemy ; yet did she not make a multitude of converts, not only among the canaille, but among persons of some distinction ? and had she not followers and defenders even among the clergy themselves ?—Not to observe that when she reported that she should soon be the mother of the infant Messiah, a medical practitioner of some eminence, and the author of a useful work for tamilies, came forward and staked his credit on her being enceinte!
All reasoning and all ridicule for the time only served to contribute to the force and obstinacy of the folly. But how just, here, is the remark of an eminent female writer—"Such preposterous pretensions being obviously out of the power of human nature to accomplish, the very extravagance is believed to be supernatural. It is the impossibility which makes the assumed certainty; as the epilepsy of Mahomet confirmed his claims to inspiration.” And is there nothing now going forward far exceeding in credulous wonder, arrogant pretension, and miraculous boasting, all that has gone before it, in a country which, in a twofold sense, may well be called “a land of vision ?»*
One way to become sceptical is, instead of remembering our Lord's words, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them," ir become critical and curious in religion. A very fruitfu. source of error is to trample on the distinction of Moses ; “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” The sciences and the arts being human inventions, and therefore not only finite, but imperfect, will allow of new discoveries ; and every innovation is commonly an improvement, or by experiment it is soon rejected: but we make no scruple to say, that novelty in religion is needless, dangerous, delusive. We are to receive the kingdom of God as a little child. The design of the Gospel is to “cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and to bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”
The maxim, often quoted, of a very great and a very good man, who blesses and adorns our own age, and who furnishes another proof that first-rate minds are simple and free from eccentricities“Though we are not to be wise above what is written, we should be wise up to what is written;" has been made to justify more than he intended. The Apostle considers it a reproach to be “always learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth:" and it is a matter of lamentation when persons, perhaps well disposed, are seized with the imagination that there is something of importance to be yet found out in religion, instead of walking in the light, and having the heart established with grace. And what is the subject of these possible or desirable developments? And what lack of motive or of consolation did they feel, who have gone before us in every kind of excellency? And what more perfect characters can we expect than the Leightons and Howes, who, it now seems, were denied illuminations conferred on individuals just entering into the kingdom of God, without a religious education, and from the midst of worldly dissipation or indifference? And where are the superior effects of discoveries, which we are assured not only possess truth, but are of the greatest efficiency? We need not be afraid to compare the converts, the benefactors, the sufferers, the martyrs of one school with those of another. “No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new, for he saith, the old is better."
* If a person wishes to see this subject fully treated, he would do well to read a late publication, called, "Modern Fanaticism Unveiled.” The work is anonymous, but the author not only writes with great ability and spirit, but is a determined advocate for Evangelical religion, and says nothing (which is always to be dreaded in such dis. cussions) to the disparagement of serious or fervent piety.
Here again it is refreshing and delightful, to turn to one distinguished by consistency, and who has awakened and retained attention so long, not by strangeness, but excellence; not by crying, Lo, here; or, lo, there! but by walking stedfastly in the truth; and whose path has not been the glare of the meteor, or the “lawless sweep of the comet,” but the shining light of the sun, which shineth more and more unto the perfect day. Nothing would be more satisfactory to the dedicator, now in the evening of life, than to be able to think, that in this particular he had been in some measure the follower of his admired and honoured friend. And by the grace of God he can say that it has been his aim and prayer to move straight on, never turning aside to the right hand or to the left, to avail himself of any temporary and adventitious aids of popular applause; constantly engaged in pressing only the plain and essential principles of the Gospel, and in matters of inferior importance, if not of disputable truth, having faith, to have it to himself before God.
There has been, perhaps, some little shade of difference in our doctrinal views; but as it has not been sufficient to impair your approbation of my preaching and writings, so I am persuaded you will find nothing in these volumes, should you ever look into them, 10 offend, even if an occasional reflection does not perfectly suit your own convictions. In one thing it is certain we differ. We are not unwilling respectively to own the Episcopalian and the Dissenter. But in this distinction, we feel conviction without censure, and avow preference without exclusion. And has Providence no concern in such results as these? Suppose, my dear Sir, you had been placed originally in my circumstances, and I had been placed in yours. Is it impossible or improbable that each of us might have been differently minded from what we now are ? Yet who determines the bounds of our habitations? Who administers the events of our birth, and of the days of our earlier and most dura