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EXCELLENCY OF THE CHRISTIAN INSTITUTION.
—Aptissima quæque dabunt dii
Charior est illis homo, quam sibi—Juv. S. 10 I. 345.
—The gods will grant
What their unerring wisdom sees thee want:
In goodness, as in greatness they excel;
Ah that we lov’d ourselves but half so well!
IT is owing to pride, and a secret affectation of a certain self-existence, that the noblest motive for action that ever was proposed to man, is not acknowledged the glory and happiness of their being. The heart is treacherous to itself, and we do not let our reflections go deep enough to receive religion as the most honourable incentive to good and worthy actions. It is our natural weakness, to flatter ourselves into a belief, that if we search into our inmost thoughts, we find ourselves wholly disinterested, and divested of any views arising from self-love and vain glory. But however spirits of superficial greatness may disdain at first sight to do any thing, but from a noble impulse in themselves, without any future regards in this or another being: upon stricter inquiry they will find to act worthily and expect to be rewarded only in another world, is as heroic a pitch of virtue as human nature can arrive at. if the tenor of our actions have any other motive, than the desire to be pleasing 185in the eye of the Deity, it will necessarily follow that we must be more than men, if we are not too much exalted in prosperity, and depressed in adversity; but the Christian world has a leader, the contemplation of whose life and sufferings must administer comfort in affliction, while the sense of his power and omnipotence must give them humiliation in prosperity.
It is owing to the forbidden and unlovely constraint with which men of low conceptions act when they think they conform themselves to religion, as well as to the more odious conduct of hypocrites, that the word Christian does not carry with it, at first view, all that is great, worthy, friendly, generous, and heroic. The man who suspends his hopes of the reward of worthy actions till after death, who can bestow unseen, who can overlook hatred, do good to his slanderer, who can never be angry at his friend, never revengeful to his enemy, is certainly formed for the benefit of society; yet these are so far from heroic virtues, that they are but the ordinary duties of a Christian.
When a man with a steady faith, looks back on the great catastrophe of this day, with what bleeding emotions of heart must he contemplate the life and sufferings of his Deliverer? When his agonies occur to him, how will he weep to reflect that he has often forgot them for the glance of a wanton, for the applause of a vain world, for an heap of 186 fleeting past pleasures, which are at present aching sorrows!
How pleasing is the contemplation of the lowly steps our Almighty Leader took in conducting us to his heavenly mansions! In plain and apt parable, similitude, and allegory, our great Master enforced the doctrine of our salvation; but they of his acquaintance, instead of receiving what they could not oppose, were offended at the presumption of being wiser than they: they could not raise their little ideas above the consideration of him, in those circumstances familiar to them, or conceive that he who appeared not more terrible or pompous, should have any thing more exalted than themselves; he in that place therefore would not longer ineffectually exert a power which was incapable of conquering the prepossession a their narrow and mean conceptions.
Multitudes followed him, and brought him the dumb, the blind, the sick, and maimed; whom when their Creator had touched, with a second life they saw, spoke, leaped, and ran. In affection to him, and admiration of his actions, the crowd could not leave him, but waited near him till they were almost as faint and helpless as others they brought for succour. He had compassion on them, and by a miracle supplied their necessities. Oh! the ecstatic entertainment, when they could behold their food immediately increase to the distributer’s hand, and see their God in person feeding and refreshing 187his creatures! Oh envied happiness! But why do I say envied? as if our God did not still preside over our temperate meals, chearful hours, and innocent conversations.
But though the sacred story is every where full of miracles not inferior to this, and though in the midst of those acts of divinity he never gave the least hint of a design to become a secular Prince, yet had not hitherto the apostles themselves any other hopes than of worldly power, preferment, riches and pomp; for Peter, upon an accident of ambition among the apostles, hearing his Master explain that his kingdom was not of this world, was so scandalized, that he, whom he had so long followed, should suffer the ignominy, shame, and death which he foretold, that he took him aside, and said, “Be it far from thee, Lord! this shall not be unto thee:” for which he suffered a severe reprehension from his Master, as having in his view the glory of man rather than that of God.
The great change of things began to draw near, when the Lord of nature thought fit as a Saviour and Deliverer to make his public entry into Jerusalem with more than the power of joy, but none of the ostentation and pomp of a triumph; he came humble, meek, and lowly; with an unfelt new extasy, multitudes strewed his way with garments and olive branches, crying with loud gladness and acclamation, “Hosannah to the son of David, blessed is he that cometh in 188the name of the Lord!” At this great King’s accession to his throne, men were not ennobled, but saved; crimes were not remitted, but sins forgiven; he did not bestow medals, honours, favours, but health, joy, sight, speech. The first object the blind ever saw, was the author of sight; while the lame ran before, and the dumb repeated the Hosannah. Thus attended, he entered into his own house, the sacred temple, and, by his divine authority, expelled traders and worldlings that profaned it; and thus did he, for a time, use a great and despotic power, to let unbelievers understand, that it was not want of, but superiority to, all worldly dominion, that made him not exert it. But is this then the Saviour? is this the Deliverer? shall this obscure Nazarene command Israel, and sit on the throne of David? Their proud and disdainful hearts, which were petrified with the love and pride of this world, were impregnable to the reception of so mean a benefactor, and were now enough exasperated with benefits to conspire his death. Our Lord was sensible of their design, and prepared his disciples for it, by recounting to them now more distinctly what should befal him; but Peter, with an ungrounded resolution, and in a flush of temper, made a sanguine protestation, that though all men were offended in him, yet would not he be offended. It was a great article of our Saviour’s business in the world, to bring us to a sense of our inability, without 189God’s assistance, to do any thing great or good; he therefore told Peter, who thought so well of his courage and fidelity, that they would both fail him, and even he should deny him thrice that very night.
“But what heart can conceive, what tongue utter the sequel? Who is that yonder, buffeted, mocked and spurned? Whom do they drag like a felon? Whither do they carry my Lord, my King, my Saviour, and my God? And will he die to expiate those very injuries? See where they have nailed the Lord and giver of life! how his wounds blacken, his body writhes, and heart heaves with pity and with agony! Oh Almighty Sufferer! look down, look down from thy triumphant infamy: lo, he inclines his head to his sacred bosom! hark, he groans! see, he expires! The earth trembles, the temple rends, the rocks burst, the dead arise: which are the quick? which are the dead! Sure nature, all nature is departing with her Creator.”
IF to inform the understanding and regulate the will, is the most lasting and diffusive benefit, there will not be found so useful and excellent an institution as that of the Christian priesthood which is now become the scorn of fools. That a numerous order of men should be consecrated to the study of the most sublime and beneficial truths, with a design to propagate them by their discourses and writings, to inform their fellow-creatures 190of the being and attributes of the Deity, to possess their minds with the sense of a future state, and not only to explain the nature of every virtue and moral duty, but likewise to persuade mankind to the practice of them by the most powerful and engaging motives, is a thing so excellent and necessary to the well being of the world, that no body but a modern free-thinker could have the forehead or folly to turn it into ridicule.
The light in which these points should be exposed to the view of one who is prejudiced against the names, religion, church, priest, and the like, is, to consider the clergy as so many philosophers, the churches as schools, and their sermons as lectures, for the information and improvement of the audience. How would the heart of Socrates or Tully have rejoiced, had they lived in a nation, where the law had made provision for philosophers to read lectures of morality and theology every seventh day, in several thousands of schools erected at the public charge throughout the whole country, at which lectures all ranks and sexes, without distinction, were obliged to be present for their general improvement? And what wicked wretches would they think those men, who should endeavour to defeat the purpose of so divine an institution?
It is indeed usual with that low tribe of writers, to pretend their design is only to reform the church, and expose the vices and not the order of the clergy. The author of 191a pamphlet printed the other day, (which, without my mentioning the title, will on this occasion occur to the thoughts of those who have read it) hopes to insinuate by that artifice what he is afraid or ashamed openly to maintain. But there are two points which clearly shew what it is he aims at. The first is, that he constantly uses the word priest in such a manner, as that his reader cannot but observe he means to throw an odium on the clergy of the church of England, from their being called by a name which they enjoy in common with Heathens and Imposters. The other is, his raking together and exaggerating with great spleen and industry, all those actions of churchmen, which either by their own illness, or the bad light in which he places them, tend to give men an ill impression of the dispensers of the Gospel: all which he pathetically addresses to the consideration of his wise and honest countryman of the laity. The sophistry and ill-breeding of these proceedings are so obvious to men who have any pretence to that character, that I need say no more either of them or their author.192
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