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IF I mistake not, I have now fully established the truth of my three propositions.
First, That there is now extant a book intitled the New Testament.
Secondly, That from this book may be extracted a system of religion intirely new; both in its object, and its doctrines, not only superior to, but totally unlike every thing, which had ever before entered into the mind of man.
Thirdly, That from this book may likewise be collected a system 98of ethics, in which every moral precept founded on reason is carried to a higher degree of purity and perfection, than in any other of the wisest philosophers of preceding ages; every moral precept founded on false principles totally omitted, and many new precepts added, peculiarly corresponding with the new object of this religion.
Every one of these propositions, I am persuaded, is incontrovertibly true; and if true, this short, but certain conclusion must inevitably follow; That such a system of religion and morality could not possibly have been the work of any man, or set of men, much 99less of those obscure, ignorant, and illiterate persons who actually did discover, and publish it to the world; and that therefore it must have been effected by the supernatural interposition of divine power and wisdom; that is, that it must derive its origin from God.
This argument seems to me little short of demonstration, and is indeed founded on the very same reasoning, by which the material world is proved to be the work of his invisible hand. We view with admiration the heavens and the earth, and all therein contained; we contemplate with amazement the minute bodies of animals too 100small for perception, and the immense planetary orbs too vast for imagination: We are certain that these cannot be the works of man; and therefore we conclude with reason, that they must be the productions of an omnipotent Creator. In the same manner we see here a scheme of religion and morality unlike and superior to all ideas of the human mind, equally impossible to have been discovered by the knowledge, as invented by the artifice of man; and therefore by the same mode of reasoning, and with the same justice, we conclude, that it must derive its origin from the same omnipotent and omnifcient Being.101
Nor was the propagation of this religion less extraordinary than the religion itself, or less above the reach of all human power, than the discovery of it was above that of all human understanding. It is well known, that in the course of a very few years it was spread over all the principal parts of Asia and of Europe, and this by the ministry only of an inconsiderable number of the most inconsiderable persons; that at this time Paganism was in the highest repute, believed universally by the vulgar, and patronised by the great; that the wisest men of the wisest nations assisted at its sacrifices, and consulted its oracles on the most 102important occasions: Whether these were the tricks of the priests or of the devil, is of no consequence, as they were both equally unlikely to be converted, or overcome; the fact is certain, that on the preaching of a few fishermen, their altars were deserted, and their deities were dumb. This miracle they undoubtedly performed, whatever we may think of the rest: and this is surely sufficient to prove the authority of their commission; and to convince us, that neither their undertaking nor the execution of it could possibly be their own.
How much this divine institution has been corrupted, or how 103soon these corruptions began, how far it has been discoloured by the false notions of illiterate ages, or blended with fictions by pious frauds, or how early these notions and fictions were introduced, no learning or sagacity, is now able precisely to ascertain; but surely no man, who seriously considers the excellence and novelty of its doctrines, the manner in which it was at first propagated through the world, the persons who achieved that wonderful work, and the originality of those writings in which it is still recorded, can possibly believe that it could ever have been the production of imposture, or chance; or that from 104an imposture the most wicked and blasphemous, (for if an imposture, such it is,) all the religion and virtue now existing on earth can derive their source.
But notwithstanding what has been here urged, if any man can believe, that at a time when the literature of Greece and Rome, then in their meridian lustre, were insufficient for the talk, the son of a carpenter, together with twelve of the meanest and most illiterate mechanics, his associates, unassisted by any supernatural power, should be able to discover or invent a system of theology the most sublime, and of ethics the most perfect, which had escaped the penetration 105and learning of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero; and that from this system, by their own sagacity, they had excluded every false virtue, though universally admired, and admitted every true virtue, though despised and ridiculed by all the rest of the world: If any one can believe that these men could become impostors, for no other purpose than the propagation of truth, villains for no end but to teach honesty, and martyrs without the least prospect of honour or advantage; or that, if all this should have been possible, these few inconsiderable persons should have been able, in the course of a few years, to have spread this 106their religion over most parts of the then known world, in opposition to the interests, pleasures, ambition, prejudices, and even reason of mankind; to have triumphed over the power of princes, the intrigues of states, the force of custom, the blindness of zeal, the influence of priests, the arguments of orators, and the philosophy of the world, without any supernatural assistance; if any one can believe all these miraculous events, contradictory to the constant experience of the powers and dispositions of human nature, he must be possessed of much more faith than is necessary to make him a Christian, and remain 107an unbeliever from mere credulity.
But should these credulous infidels after all be in the right, and this pretended revelation be all a fable; from believing it what harm could ensue? Would it render princes more tyrannical, or subjects more ungovernable? the rich more insolent, or the poor more disorderly? Would it make worse parents or children, husbands or wives, masters or servants, friends or neighbours? Or would it not make men more virtuous, and consequently more happy in every situation? It could not be criminal; it could not be detrimental. It could not be criminal, because 108it cannot be a crime to assent to such evidence, as has been able to convince the best and wisest of mankind; by which, if false, Providence must have permitted men to deceive each other, for the most beneficial ends, and which therefore it would be surely more meritorious to believe, from a disposition of faith and charity, which believeth all things, than to reject with scorn from obstinacy and self-conceit: It cannot be detrimental, because if Christianity is a fable, it is a fable, the belief of which is the only principle which can retain men in a steady and uniform course of virtue, piety, and devotion, or can support them 109in the hour of distress, of sickness, and of death. Whatever might be the operations of true deism on the minds of pagan philosophers, that can now avail us nothing: for that light which once lightened the gentiles, is now absorbed in the brighter illumination of the gospel; we can now form no rational system of deism, but what must be borrowed from that source, and, at far as it reaches towards perfection, must be exactly the same; and therefore if we will not accept of Christianity, we can have no religion at all. Accordingly we see, that those who fly from this, scarce ever stop at deism; but hasten on with great alacrity to a total rejection 110of all religious and moral principles whatever.
If I have here demonstrated the divine origin of the christian religion by an argument which cannot be confuted; no others, however plausible or numerous, founded on probabilities, doubts, and conjectures, can ever disprove it, because if it is once shewn to be true, it cannot be false. But as many arguments of this kind have bewildered some candid and ingenuous minds, I shall here bestow a few lines on those which have the most weight, in order to wipe out, or at least to diminish their perplexing influence.
But here I must previously observe, 111that the most unsurmountable, as well as the most usual obstacle to our belief, arises from our passions, appetites, and interests; for faith being an act of the will as much as of the understanding, we oftener disbelieve for want of inclination, than want of evidence. The first step towards thinking this revelation true, is our hopes that it is so; for whenever we much wish any proposition to be true, we are not far from believing it. It is certainly for the interest of all good men, that its authority should be well founded; and still more beneficial to the bad, if ever they intend to be better: because it is the only 112system either of reason or religion which can give them any assurance of pardon. The punishment of vice is a debt due to justice, which cannot be remitted without compensation: repentance can be no compensation; it may change a wicked man’s dispositions, and, prevent his offending for the future, but can lay no claim to pardon for what is past. If any one by profligacy and extravagance contracts a debt, repentance may make him wiser, and hinder him from running into further distresses, but can never pay off his old bonds; for which he must be ever accountable, unless they are discharged by himself, or some 113other in his stead: this very discharge Christianity alone holds forth on our repentance, and, if true, will certainly perform: the truth of it therefore must ardently be wished for by all, except the wicked, who are determined neither to repent or reform. It is well worth every man’s while, who either is, or intends to be virtuous, to believe Christianity, if he can; because he will find it the surest preservative against all vitious habits and their attendant evils, the best resource under distresses and disappointments, ill health and ill fortune, and the firmest basis on which contemplation can rest; and without some, the 114human mind is never perfectly at ease. But if any one is attached to a favourite pleasure, or eagerly engaged in worldly pursuits incompatible with the precepts of this religion, and he believes it, he must either relinquish those pursuits with uneasiness, or persist in them with remorse and dissatisfaction, and therefore must commence unbeliever in his own defence. With such I shall not dispute, nor pretend to persuade men by arguments to make themselves miserable: but to those, who, not afraid that this religion may be true, are really affected by such objections, I will offer the following answers, 115which, though short, will, I doubt not, be sufficient to shew them their weakness and futility.
In the first place, then, some have been so bold as to strike at the root of all revelation from God, by asserting, that it is incredible, because unnecessary, and unnecessary, because the reason which he has bestowed on mankind is sufficiently able to discover all the religious and moral duties which he requires of them, if they would but attend to her precepts, and be guided by her friendly admonitions. Mankind have undoubtedly at various times from the remotest ages received so much knowledge by divine communications, and 116have ever been so much inclined to impute it all to their own sufficiency, that it is now difficult to determine what human reason unassisted can effect: But to form a true judgment on this subject, let us turn our eyes to those remote regions of the globe, to which this supernatural assistance has never yet extended, and we shall there see men endued with sense and reason not inferior to our own, so far from being capable of forming systems of religion and morality, that they are at this day totally unable to make a nail or a hatchet: from whence we may surely be convinced, that reason alone is so far from being sufficient to offer 117 to mankind a perfect religion, that it has never yet been able to lead them to any degree of culture, or civilization whatever. These have uniformly flowed from that great fountain of divine communication opened in the east, in the earliest ages, and thence been gradually diffused in salubrious streams, throughout the various regions of the earth. Their rise and progress, by surveying the history of the world, may early be traced backwards to their source; and wherever these have not as yet been able to penetrate, we there find the human species not only void of all true religious and moral sentiments, but not the least emerged 118from their original ignorance and barbarity; which seems a demonstration, that although human reason is capable of progression in science, yet the first foundations must be laid by supernatural instructions: for surely no other probable cause can be assigned, why one part of mankind should have made such an amazing progress in religious, moral, metaphysical, and philosophical enquiries; such wonderful improvements in policy, legislation, commerce, and manufactures, while the other part, formed with the same natural capacities, and divided only by seas and mountains, should remain, during the same number of ages, in 119a state little superior to brutes, without government, without laws or letters, and even without clothes and habitations; murdering each other to satiate their revenge, and devouring each other to appease their hunger: I say no cause can be assigned for this amazing difference, except that the first have received information from those divine communications recorded in the scriptures, and the latter have never yet been favoured with such assistance. This remarkable contrast seems an unanswerable, though perhaps a new proof of the necessity of revelation, and a solid refutation of all arguments against it, drawn from the sufficiency of 120 human reason. And as reason in her natural state is thus incapable of making any progress in knowledge; so when furnished with materials by supernatural aid, if left to the guidance of her own wild imaginations, she falls into more numerous, and more gross errors, than her own native ignorance could ever have suggested. There is then no absurdity so extravagant, which she is not ready to adopt: she has persuaded some, that there is no God; others, that there can be no future state: she has taught some, that there is no difference between vice and virtue, and that to cut a man’s throat and to relieve his necessities are actions equally meritorious: 121she has convinced many, that they have no free-will in opposition to their own experience; some, that there can be no such thing as soul, or spirit, contrary to their own perceptions; and others, no such thing as matter or body, in contradiction to their senses. By analysing all things she can shew, that there is nothing in any thing; by perpetual sifting she can reduce all existence to the invisible dust of scepticism; and by recurring to first principles, prove to the satisfaction of her followers, that there are no principles at all. How far such a guide is to be depended on in the important concerns of religion, and morals, I leave to the judgment of 122every considerate man to determine. This is certain, that human reason in its highest state of cultivation amongst the philosophers of Greece and Rome, was never able to form a religion comparable to Christianity; nor have all those sources of moral virtue, such as truth, beauty, and the fitness of things, which modern philosophers have endeavoured to substitute in its stead, ever been effectual to produce good men, and have themselves often been the productions of some of the worst.
Others there are, who allow, that a revelation from God may be both necessary, and credible; but alledge, that the scriptures, that is 123books of the Old and New Testament, cannot be that Revelation; because in them are to be found errors and inconsistencies, fabulous stories, false facts, and false philosophy; which can never be derived from the fountain of all wisdom and truth. To this I reply, that I readily acknowledge, that the scriptures are not revelations from God, but the history of them: The revelation itself is derived from God; but the history of it is the production of men, and therefore the truth of it is not in the least affected by their fallibility, but depends on the internal evidence of its own supernatural excellence. If in these books such a 124religion, as has been here described, actually exists, no seeming, or even real defects to be found in them can disprove the divine origin of this religion, or invalidate my argument. Let us, for instance, grant that the Mosaic history of the creation was founded on the erroneous but popular principles of those early ages, who imagined the earth to be a vast plain, and the celestial bodies no more than luminaries hung up in the concave firmament to enlighten it; will it from thence follow, that Moses could not be a proper instrument in the hands of Providence, to impart to the Jews a divine law, because he was not inspired with a 125fore-knowledge of the Copernican and Newtonian systems? or that Christ must be an impostor, because Moses was not an astronomer? Let us also suppose, that the accounts of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, the devil’s taking refuge in the herd of swine, with several other narrations in the New Testament, frequently ridiculed by unbelievers, were all but stories accommodated to the ignorance and superstitions of the times and countries in which they were written, or pious frauds intended to impress on vulgar minds a higher reverence of the power and sanctity of Christ; will this in the least impeach the excellence of his religion, 126 or the authority of its founder? or is Christianity answerable for all the fables of which it may have been the innocent occasion? The want of this obvious distinction has much injured the Christian cause; because on this ground it has ever been most successfully attacked, and on this ground it is not easily to be defended: for if the records of this revelation are supposed to be the revelation itself, the least defect discovered in them must be fatal to the whole. What has led many to overlook this distinction, is that common phrase, that the scriptures are the word of God; and in one sense they certainly are; that is, they are the 127sacred repository of all the revelations, dispensations, promises, and precepts, which God has vouchsafed to communicate to mankind; but by this expression we are not to understand, that every part of this voluminous collection of historical, poetical, prophetical, theological, and moral writings, which we call the Bible, was dictated by the immediate influence of divine inspiration: The authors of these books pretend to no such infallibility, and if they claim it not for themselves, who has authority to claim it for them? Christ required no such belief from those who were willing to be his disciples. He says, “He that believeth on me, hath everlasting 128life1919 John vi. 47.;” but where does he say, He that believeth not every word contained in the Old. Testament, which was then extant, or every word in the New Testament, which was to be wrote for the instruction of future generations, hath not everlasting life? There are innumerable occurrences related in the scriptures, some of greater, some of less, and some of no importance at all; the truth of which we can have no reason to question, but the belief of them is surely not essential to the faith of a Christian: I have no doubt but that St. Paul was shipwrecked, and that he left his cloak 129and his parchments at Troas; but the belief of these facts makes no part of Christianity, nor is the truth of them any proof of its authority. It proves only that this apostle could not in common life be under the perpetual influence of infallible inspiration; for, had he been so, he would not have put to sea before a storm, nor have forgot his cloak. These writers were undoubtedly directed by supernatural influence in all things necessary to the great work, which they were appointed to perform: At particular times, and on particular occasions, they were enabled to utter prophecies, to speak languages, and to work miracles; but in all other 130 circumstances, they seem to have been left to the direction of their own understandings, like other men. In the sciences of history, geography, astronomy, and philosophy, they appear to have been no better instructed than others, and therefore were not less liable to be misled by the errors and prejudices of the times and countries in which they lived. They related facts like honest men, to the best of their knowledge or information, and they recorded the divine lessons of their master with the utmost fidelity; but they pretended to no infallibility, for they sometimes differed in their relations, and they sometimes disagreed 131in their sentiments. All which proves only, that they did not act, or write, in a combination to deceive, but not in the least impeaches the truth of the revelation which they published; which depends not on any external evidence whatever: For I will venture to affirm, that if any one could prove, what is impossible to be proved, because it is not true, that there are errors in geography, chronology, and philosophy, in every page of the Bible; that the prophecies therein delivered are all but fortunate guesses, or artful applications, and the miracles there recorded no better than legendary tales: if any one could shew, that 132these books were never written by their pretended authors, but were posterior impositions on illiterate and credulous ages: all these wonderful discoveries would prove no more than this, that God, for reasons to us unknown, had thought proper to permit a revelation by him communicated to mankind, to be mixed with their ignorance, and corrupted by their frauds from its earliest infancy, in the same manner in which he has visibly permitted it to be mixed, and corrupted from that period to the present hour. If in these books a religion superior to all human imagination actually exists, it is of no consequence to the proof of 133its divine origin, by what means it was there introduced, or with what human errors and. imperfections it is blended. A diamond, though found in a bed of mud, is still a diamond, nor can the dirt, which surrounds it, depreciate its value or destroy its lustre.
To some speculative and refined observers, it has appeared incredible, that a wife and benevolent Creator should have constituted a world upon one plan, and a religion for it on another; that is, that he should have revealed a religion to mankind, which not only contradicts the principal passions and inclinations which he has implanted in their natures, but 134is incompatible with the whole œconomy of that world which he has created, and in which he has thought proper to place them. This, say they, with regard to the Christian is apparently the case: the love of power, riches, honour, and fame, are the great incitements to generous and magnanimous actions; yet by this institution are all these depreciated and discouraged. Government is essential to the nature of man, and cannot be managed without certain degrees of violence, corruption, and imposition; yet are all these strictly forbid. Nations cannot subsist without wars, nor war be carried on without rapine, 135desolation, and murder; yet are these prohibited under the severest threats. The non-resistance of evil must subject individuals to continual oppressions, and leave nations a defenceless prey to their enemies; yet is this recommended. Perpetual patience under insults and injuries must every day provoke new insults and new injuries; yet is this injoined. A neglect of all we eat and drink and wear, must put an end to all commerce, manufactures, and industry; yet is this required. In short were these precepts universally obeyed, the disposition of all human affairs must be intirely changed, and the business of the 136world, constituted as it now is, could not go on. To all this I answer, that such indeed is the christian revelation, though some of its advocates may perhaps be unwilling to own it, and such it is constantly declared to be by him who gave it, as well as by those, who published it under his immediate direction: To these he says, “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you2020 John xv. 19..” To the Jews he declares, “Ye are of this world; I am not of this world2121 John viii. 23..” St. Paul writes to the Romans, 137“Be not conformed to this world2222 Rom. xii. 2.;” and to the Corinthians, “We speak not the wisdom of this world2323 Cor. ii. 6..” St. James says, “Know ye not, that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God2424 Jam. iv. 4..” This irreconcileable disagreement between christianity and the world is announced in numberless other places in the New Testament, and indeed by the whole tenour of those writings. These are plain declarations, which, in spite of all the evasions of those good managers, who choose to take a little 138of this world in their way to heaven, stand fixed and immoveable against all their arguments drawn from public benefit and pretended necessity, and must ever forbid any reconciliation between the pursuits of this world and the christian institution: But they who reject it on this account, enter not into the sublime spirit of this religion, which is not a code of precise laws designed for the well-ordering society, adapted to the ends of worldly convenience, and amenable to the tribunal of human prudence; but a divine lesson of purity and perfection, so far superior to the low considerations of conquest, government, and commerce, 139that it takes no more notice of them, than of the battles of game-cocks, the policy of bees, or the industry of ants: they recollect not what is the first and principal object of this institution; that this is not, as has been often repeated, to make us happy, or even virtuous in the present life, for the sake of augmenting our happiness here, but to conduct us through a state of dangers and sufferings, of sin and temptation, in such a manner as to qualify us for the enjoyment of happiness hereafter. All other institutions of religion and morals were made for the world, but the characteristic of this is to be against it; and 140therefore the merits of christian doctrines are not to be weighed in the scales of public utility, like those of moral precepts, because worldly utility is not their end. If Christ and his apostles had pretended, that the religion which they preached would advance the power, wealth, and prosperity of nations, or of men, they would have deserved but little credit; but they constantly profess the contrary, and every where declare, that their religion is adverse to the world, and all its pursuits. Christ says, speaking of his disciples, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world2525 John xvii. 16..” It 141can therefore be no imputation on this religion, or on any of its precepts, that they tend not to an end which their author professedly disclaims: nor can it surely be deemed a defect, that it is adverse to the vain pursuits of this world; for so are reason, wisdom, and experience; they all teach us the same lesson, they all demonstrate to us every day, that these are begun on false hopes, carried on with disquietude, and end in disappointment. This professed incompatibility with the little, wretched, and iniquitous business of the world, is therefore so far from being a defect in this religion, that, was there no other proof of 142its divine origin, this alone, I think, would be abundantly sufficient. The great plan and benevolent design of this dispensation is plainly this; to enlighten the minds, purify the religion, and amend the morals of mankind in general, and to select the most meritorious of them to be successively transplanted into the kingdom of heaven: Which gracious offer is impartially tendered to all, who by perseverance in meekness, patience, piety, charity, and a detachment from the world, are willing to qualify themselves for this holy and happy society. Was this universally accepted, and did every man observe strictly every precept 143of the gospel, the face of human affairs and the œconomy of the world would indeed be greatly changed; but surely they would be changed for the better; and we should enjoy much more happiness, even here, than at present: For we must not forget, that evils are by it forbid as well as resistance; injuries, as well as revenge; all unwillingness to diffuse the enjoyments of life, as well as sollicitude to acquire them; all obstacles to ambition, as well as ambition itself; and therefore all contentions for power and interest would be at an end; and the world would go on much more happily than it now does. But 144this universal acceptance of such an offer was never expected from so depraved and imperfect a creature as man, and therefore could never have been any part of the design: For it was foreknown and foretold by him who made it; that few, very few would accept it on these terms. He says, “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth into life, and few there be that find it2626 Matt. vii. 4.:” Accordingly we see, that very few are prevailed on by the hopes of future happiness, to relinquish the pursuits of present pleasures or interests, and therefore these pursuits are little interrupted by the secession 145of so inconsiderable a number: As the natural world subsists by the struggles of the same elements, so does the moral by the contentions of the same passions, as from the beginning: The generality of mankind are actuated by the same motives, fight, scuffle, and scramble for power, riches, and pleasures with the same eagerness: all occupations and professions are exercised with the same alacrity, and there are soldiers, lawyers, statesmen, patriots, and politicians, just as if Christianity had never existed. Thus, we see this wonderful dispensation has answered all the purposes for which it was intended: It has enlightened the 146minds, purified the religion, and amended the morals of mankind; and, without subverting the constitution, policy, or business of the world, opened a gate, though a strait one, through which all, who are wise enough to choose it, and good enough to be fit for it, may find an entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
Others have said, that if this revelation had really been from God, his infinite power and goodness could never have suffered it to have been so soon perverted from its original purity, to have continued in a state of corruption through the course of so many ages, and at last to have proved so ineffectual to the 147reformation of mankind. To these I answer, that all this, on examination, will be found inevitable, from the nature of all revelations communicated to so imperfect a creature as man, and from circumstances peculiar to the rise and progress of the Christian in particular: for when this was first preached to the gentile nations, though they were not able to with-land the force of its evidence, and therefore received it; yet they could not be prevailed on to relinquish their old superstitions, and former opinions, but chose rather to incorporate them with it: By which means it was necessarily mixed with their ignorance, and their 148learning; by both which it was equally injured. The people defaced its worship by blending it with their idolatrous ceremonies, and the philosophers corrupted its doctrines by weaving them up with the notions of the Gnostics, Mystics, and Manichæans, the prevailing systems of those times. By degrees its irresistible excellence gained over princes, potentates, and conquerors to its interests, and it was supported by their patronage: but that patronage soon engaged it in their policies and contests, and destroyed that excellence by which it had been acquired. At length the meek and humble professors of the gospel 149inslaved these princes, and conquered these conquerors their patrons, and erected for themselves such a stupendous fabric of wealth and power, as the world had never seen: they then propagated their religion by the same methods, by which it had been persecuted; nations were converted by fire and sword, and the vanquished were baptized with daggers at their throats. All these events we see proceed from a chain of causes and consequences, which could not have been broken without changing the established course of things by a constant series of miracles, or a total alteration of human nature: whilst that continues as it is, the purest 150religion must be corrupted by a conjunction with power and riches, and it will also then appear to be much more corrupted than it really is: because many are inclined to think, that every deviation from its primitive state is a corruption: Christianity was at first preached by the poor and mean, in holes and caverns, under the iron rod of persecution, and therefore many absurdly conclude, that any degree of wealth or power in its ministers, or of magnificence in its worship, are corruptions inconsistent with. the genuine simplicity of its original state: they are offended, that modern bishops should possess titles, palaces, revenues, and coaches, 151when it is notorious, that their predecessors the apostles were despicable wanderers, without houses, or money, and walked on foot. The apostles indeed lived in a state of poverty and persecution attendant on their particular situation, and the work which they had undertaken: this was their misfortune, but no part of their religion, and therefore it can be no more incumbent on their successors to imitate their poverty and meanness, than to be whipped, imprisoned, and put to death, in compliance with their example. These are all but the suggestions of envy and malevolence, but no objections to these fortunate alterations 152in Christianity and its professors; which, if not abused to the purposes of tyranny and superstition, are in fact no more than the necessary and proper effects of its more prosperous situation. When a poor man grows rich, or a servant becomes a master, they should take care that their exaltation prompts them not to be unjust or insolent; but surely it is not requisite or right, that their behaviour and mode of living should be exactly the same, when their situation is altered. How far this institution has been effectual to the reformation of mankind, it is not easy now to ascertain, because the enormities which prevailed 153before the appearance of it are by time so far removed from our sight, that they are scarcely visible; but those of the most gigantic size still remain in the records of history, as monuments of the rest: Wars in those ages were carried on with a ferocity and cruelty unknown to the present: whole cities and nations were extirpated by fire and sword; and thousands of the vanquished were crucified and impaled for having endeavoured only to defend themselves and their country. The lives of new-born infants were then intirely at the disposal of their parents, who were at liberty to bring them up, or to expose them to perish by cold and hunger, or to 154be devoured by birds and beasts; and this was frequently practised without punishment, and even without censure. Gladiators were employed by hundreds to cut one another to pieces in public theatres for the diversion of the most polite assemblies; and though these combatants at first consisted of criminals only, by degrees men of the highest rank, and even ladies of the most illustrious families, enrolled themselves in this honourable list. On many occasions human sacrifices were ordained; and at the funerals of rich and eminent persons, great numbers of their slaves were murdered as victims pleasing to their departed 155spirits. The most infamous obscenities were made part of their religious worship, and the most unnatural lusts publickly avowed, and celebrated by their most admired poets. At the approach of Christianity all these horrid abominations vanished; and amongst those who first embraced it, scarce a single vice was to be found: to such an amazing degree of piety, charity, temperance, patience, and resignation were the primitive converts exalted, that they seem literally to have been regenerated, and purified from all the imperfections of human nature; and to have pursued such a constant and uniform course of devotion, innocence, 156and virtue, as, in the present times, it is almost as difficult for us to conceive as to imitate. If it is asked, why should not the belief of the same religion now produce the same effects? the answer is short, because it is not believed: The most sovereign medicine can perform no cure, if the patient will not be persuaded to take it. Yet notwithstanding all impediments, it has certainly done a great deal towards diminishing the vices and correcting the dispositions of mankind; and was it universally adopted in belief and practice, would totally eradicate both sin and punishment. But this was never expected, or designed, or 157possible, because, if their existence did not arise from some necessity to us unknown, they never would have been permitted to exist at all; and therefore they can no more be extirpated, than they could have been prevented: for this would certainly be incompatible with the frame and constitution of this, world, and in all probability with that of another. And this, I think, well accounts for that reserve and obscurity with which this religion was at first promulgated, and that. want of irresistible evidence of its truth, by which it might possibly have been enforced. Christ says to his disciples, “To you it is given to know the mystery of 158the kingdom of God; but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables; that seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them2727 Mark iv. 11, 12..” That is, to you by peculiar favour it is given to know and understand the doctrines of my religion, and by that means to qualify yourselves for the kingdom of heaven; but to the multitude without, that is to all mankind in general, this indulgence cannot be extended; because that all men should be exempted 159from sin and punishment is utterly repugnant to the universal system, And that constitution of things, which infinite wisdom has thought proper to adopt.
Objections have likewise been raised to the divine authority of this religion from the incredibility of some of its doctrines, particularly of those concerning the Trinity, and atonement for sin by the sufferings and death of Christ; the one contradicting all the principles of human reason, and the other all our ideas of divine justice. To these objections I shall only say, that no arguments founded on principles, which we cannot comprehend, can possibly disprove a proposition 160already proved on principles which we do understand; and therefore that on this subject they ought not to be attended to: That three Beings should be one Being, is a proposition which certainly contradicts reason, that is, our reason; but it does not from thence follow, that it cannot be true: for there are many propositions which contradict our reason, and yet are demonstrably true: one is the very first principle of all religion, the being of a God; for that any thing should exist without a cause, or that any thing should be the cause of its own existence, are propositions equally contradictory to our reason; yet one of them must be 161true or nothing could ever have existed: in like manner the overruling grace of the Creator, and the free-will of his creatures, his certain fore-knowledge of future events, and the uncertain contingency of those events, are to our apprehensions absolute contradictions to each other; and yet the truth of every one of these is demonstrable from Scripture, reason, and experience: All these difficulties arise from our imagining, that the mode of existence of all Beings must be similar to our own; that is, that they must all exist in time, and space; and hence proceeds our embarrassment on this subject. We know, that no two Beings, with whose 162mode of existence we are acquainted, can exist in the same point of time in the same point of space, and that therefore they cannot be one: but how far Beings, whose mode of existence bears no relation to time or space, may be united, we cannot comprehend: and therefore the possibility of such an union we cannot positively deny. In like manner our reason informs us, that the punishment of the innocent, instead of the guilty, is diametrically opposite to justice, rectitude, and all pretensions to utility; but we should also remember, that the short line of our reason cannot reach to the bottom of this question: it cannot inform us, by what 163means either guilt or punishment ever gained a place in the works of a Creator infinitely good and powerful, whose goodness must have induced him, and whose power must have enabled him to exclude them: It cannot assure us, that some sufferings of individuals are not necessary to the happiness and well-being of the whole: It cannot convince us, that they do not actually arise from this necessity, or that, for this cause, they may not be required of us, and levied like a tax for the public benefit; or that this tax may not be paid by one Being, as well as another; and therefore, if voluntarily offered, be justly accepted 164from the innocent instead of the guilty. Of all these circumstances we are totally ignorant; nor can our reason afford us any information, and therefore we are not able to assert, that this measure is contrary to justice, or void of utility for, unless we could first resolve that great question, whence came evil? we can decide nothing on the dispensations of Providence; because they must necessarily be connected with that undiscoverable principle; and, as we know not the root of the disease, we cannot judge of what is, or is not, a proper and effectual remedy. It is remarkable, that, notwithstanding all the seeming absurdities of this 165doctrine, there is one circumstance much in its favour; which is, that it has been universally adopted in all ages, as far as history can carry us back in our inquiries to the earliest times; in which we find all nations civilized and barbarous, however differing in all other religious opinions, agreeing alone in the expediency of appealing their offended Deities by sacrifices, that is, by the vicarious sufferings of men or other animals. This notion could never have been derived from reason, because it directly contradicts it; nor from ignorance, because ignorance could never have contrived so unaccountable an expedient, nor have been uniform in 166all ages and countries in any opinion whatsoever; nor from the artifice of kings or priests, in order to acquire dominion over the people, because it seems not adapted to this end, and we find it implanted in the minds of the most remote savages at this day discovered, who have neither kings or priests artifice, or dominion amongst them. It must therefore be derived from natural instinct, or supernatural revelation, both which are equally the operations of divine power. If it is further urged, that however true these doctrines may be, yet it must be inconsistent with the justice and goodness of the Creator, to require from his creatures 167the belief of propositions which contradict, or are above the reach of that reason, which he has thought proper to bestow upon them. To this I answer, that genuine Christianity requires no such belief: It has discovered to us many important truths, with which we were before intirely unacquainted, and amongst them are these, that three Beings are someway united in the divine essence, and that God will accept of the sufferings of Christ as an atonement for the sins of mankind. These, considered as declarations of facts only, neither contradict, or are above the reach of human reason: The first is a proposition as 168plain, as that three equilateral lines compose one triangle; the other is as intelligible, as that one man should discharge the debts of another. In what manner this union is formed, or why God accepts these vicarious punishments, or to what purposes they may be subservient, it informs us not, because no information could enable us to comprehend these mysteries, and therefore it does not require that we should know or believe any thing about them. The truth of these doctrines must rest intirely on the authority of those who taught them; but then we should reflect that those were the same persons who taught us a 169system of religion more sublime, and of ethics more perfect, than any which our faculties were ever able to discover, but which when discovered are exactly consonant to our reason, and that therefore we should not hastily reject those informations which they have vouchsafed to give us, of which our reason is not a competent judge. If an able mathematician proves to us the truth of several propositions by demonstrations which we understand, we hesitate not on his authority to assent to others, the process of whose proofs we are not able to follow: why therefore should we refuse that credit to Christ and his Apostles, which we 170think reasonable to give to one another?
Many have objected to the whole scheme of this revelation as partial, fluctuating, indeterminate, unjust, and unworthy of an omniscient and omnipotent author, who cannot be supposed to have favoured particular persons, countries, and times, with this divine-communication, while others no less meritorious have been altogether excluded from its benefits; nor to have changed and counteracted his own designs; that is, to have formed mankind able and disposed to render themselves miserable by their own wickedness, and then to have contrived so 171strange an expedient to restore them to that happiness, which they need never have been permitted to forfeit; and this to be brought about by the unnecessary interposition of a mediator. To all this I shall only say, that however unaccountable this may appear to us, who see but as small a part of the Christian, as of the universal plan of creation, they are both in regard to all these circumstances exactly analogous to each other. In all the dispensations of Providence, with which we are acquainted, benefits are distributed in a similar manner; health and strength, sense and science, wealth and power, are all bestowed on 172individuals and communities in different degrees and at different times. The whole œconomy of this world consists of evils and remedies; and these for the most part administered by the instrumentality of intermediate agents. God has permitted us to plunge ourselves into poverty, distress, and misery, by our own vices, and has afforded us the advice, instructions, and examples of others, to deter or extricate us from these calamities. He has formed us subject to innumerable diseases, and he has bestowed on us a variety of remedies. He has made us liable to hunger, thirst, and nakedness, and he supplies us with 173food, drink, and cloathing, usually by the administration of others. He has created poisons, and he has provided antidotes. He has ordained the winter’s cold to cure the pestilential heats of the summer, and the summer’s sunshine to dry up the inundations of the winter. Why the constitution of nature is so formed, why all the visible dispensations of Providence are such, and why such is the Christian dispensation also, we know not, nor have faculties to comprehend. God might certainly have made the material world a system of perfect beauty and regularity, without evils, and without remedies; and the Christian dispensation a scheme 174only of moral virtue productive of happiness, without the intervention of any atonement or mediation. He might have exempted our bodies from all diseases, and our minds from all depravity, and we should then have stood in no need of medicines to restore us to health, or expedients to reconcile us to his favour. It seems indeed to our ignorance, that this would have been more consistent with justice and reason; but his infinite wisdom has decided in another manner, and formed the systems both of Nature and Christianity on other principles, and these so exactly similar, that we have cause to conclude that they both must 175proceed from the same source of divine power and wisdom, however inconsistent with our reason they may appear. Reason is undoubtedly our surest guide in all matters, which lie within the narrow circle of her intelligence: On the subject of revelation her province is only to examine into its authority, and when that is once proved, she has no more to do, but to acquiesce in its doctrines, and therefore is never so ill employed, as when she pretends to accommodate them to her own ideas of rectitude and truth. God, says this self-sufficient teacher, is perfectly wise, just, and good; and what is the inference? That all his dispensations must be 176conformable to our notions or perfect wisdom, justice, and goodness: but it should first be proved, that man is as perfect, and as wise as his Creator, or this consequence will by no means follow; but rather the reverse, that is, that the dispensations of a perfect and all-wise Being must probably appear unreasonable, and perhaps unjust, to a Being imperfect and ignorant; and therefore their seeming impossibility may be a mark of their truth, and in some measure justify that pious rant of a mad enthusiast, “Credo, quia impossibile.” Nor is it the least surprising, that we are not able to understand the spiritual dispensations of the Almighty, 177when his material works are to us no less incomprehensible, our reason can afford us no insight into those great properties of matter, gravitation, attraction, elasticity, and electricity, nor even into the essence of matter itself: Can reason teach us how the sun’s luminous orb can fill a circle, whose diameter contains many millions of miles, with a constant inundation of successive rays during thousands of years, without any perceivable diminution of that body, from whence they are continually poured, or any augmentation of those bodies on which they fall, and by which they are constantly absorbed? Can 178reason tell us how those rays, darted with a velocity greater than that of a cannon ball, can strike the tenderest organs of the human frame without inflicting any degree of pain, or by what means this percussion only can convey the forms of distant objects to an immaterial mind? or how any union can be formed between material and immaterial essences, or how the wounds of the body can give pain to the soul, or the anxiety of the soul can emaciate and destroy the body? That all these things are so, we have visible and indisputable demonstration; but how they can be so, is to us as incomprehensible, as the most 179abstruse mysteries of Revelation can possibly be. In short, we see so small a part of the great Whole, we know so little of the relation, which the present life bears to pre-existent and future states; we can conceive so little of the nature of God, and his attributes, or mode of existence; we can comprehend so little of the material, and so much less of the moral plan on which the universe is constituted, or on what principle it proceeds, that, if a revelation from such a Being, on such subjects, was in every part familiar to our understandings, and consonant to our reason; we should have great cause to suspect its divine authority; and therefore, had this 180revelation been less incomprehensible, it would certainly have been more incredible.
But I shall not enter further into the confederation of there abstruse and difficult speculations, because the discussion of them would render this short essay too tedious and laborious a talk for the perusal of them, for whom it was principally intended; which are all those busy or idle persons, whose time and thoughts are wholly engrossed by the pursuits of business, or pleasure, ambition, or luxury, who know nothing of this religion, except what they have accidentally picked up by desultory conversation or superficial reading, and 181have thence determined with themselves, that a pretended revelation founded on so strange and improbable a story, so contradictory to reason, so adverse to the world and all its occupations, so incredible in its doctrines, and in its precepts so impracticable, can be nothing more than the imposition of priestcraft upon ignorant and illiterate ages, and artfully continued as an engine well-adapted to awe and govern the superstitious vulgar. To talk to such about the Christian religion, is to converse with the deaf concerning music, or with the blind on the beauties of painting: They want all ideas relative to the subject, 182and therefore can never be made to comprehend it: to enable them to do this, their minds must be formed for these conceptions by contemplation, retirement, and abstraction from business and dissipation, by ill-health, disappointments, and distresses; and possibly by divine interposition, or by enthusiasm, which is usually mistaken for it. Without some of these preparatory aids, together with a competent degree of learning and application, it is impossible that they can think or know, understand or believe, any thing about it. If they profess to believe, they deceive others; if they fancy that they believe, they deceive themselves. 183I am ready to acknowledge, that these gentlemen, as far as their information reaches, are perfectly in the right; and if they are endued with good understandings, which have been intirely devoted to the business or amusements of the world, they can pass no other judgment, and must revolt from the history and doctrines of this religion. “The preaching Christ crucified was to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness2828 1 Cor. i. 26.; and so it must appear to all, who, like them, judge from established prejudices, false learning, and superficial knowledge; for those who are 184quite unable to follow the chain of its prophecy, to see the beauty and justness of its moral precepts, and to enter into the wonders of its dispensations, can form no other idea of this revelation, but that of a confused rhapsody of fictions and absurdities.
If it is asked, Was Christianity then intended only for learned divines and profound philosophers? I answer, No: it was at first preached by the illiterate, and received by the ignorant; and to such are the practical, which are the most necessary parts of it sufficiently intelligible: but the proofs of its authority undoubtedly are not, because these must be chiefly drawn 185from other parts, of a speculative nature, opening to our inquiries inexhaustible discoveries concerning the nature, attributes, and dispensations of God, which cannot be understood without some learning and much attention. From these the generality of mankind must necessarily be excluded, and must therefore milt to others for the grounds of their belief, if they believe at all. And hence perhaps it is, that faith, or easiness of belief, is so frequently and so strongly recommended in the gospel; because if men require proofs, of which they themselves are incapable, and those who have no knowledge on this important subject 186will not place some confidence in those who have; the illiterate and unattentive must ever continue in a state of unbelief: but then all such should remember, that in all sciences, even in mathematics themselves, there are many propositions, which on a cursory view appear to the most acute understandings uninstructed in that science, to be impossible to be true, which yet on a clover examination are found to be truths capable of the strictest demonstration; and that therefore in disquisitions on which we cannot determine without much learned investigation, reason uninformed is by no means to be depended on; 187and from hence they ought surely to conclude, that it may be at least as possible for them to be mistaken in disbelieving this revelation, who know nothing of the matter, as for those great masters of reason and erudition Grotius, Bacon, Newton, Boyle, Locke, Addison, and Lyttelton, to be deceived in their belief: a belief, to which they firmly adhered after the most diligent and learned researches into the authenticity of its records, the completion of the prophecies, the sublimity of its doctrines, the purity of in precepts, and the arguments of its adversaries; a belief, which they have testified to the world by their writings, without 188any other motive, than their regard for truth and the benefit of mankind. Should the few foregoing pages add but one mite to the treasures with which these learned writers have enriched the world; if they should be so fortunate as to persuade any of these minute philosophers to place some confidence in these great opinions, and to distrust their own; if they should be able to convince them, that notwithstanding all unfavourable appearances, Christianity may not be altogether artifice and error; if they should prevail on them to examine it with some attention, or, if that is too much trouble, not to reject it without any examination 189at all; the purpose of this little work will be sufficiently answered. Had the arguments herein used, and the new hints here flung out, been more largely discussed, it might easily have been extended to a more considerable bulk; but then the busy would not have had leisure, nor the idle inclination to have read it. Should it ever have the honour to be admitted into such good company, they will immediately, I know, determine, that it must be the work of some enthusiast or methodist, some beggar or some madman. I shall therefore beg leave to assure them, that the author is very far removed from all these characters: that 190he once perhaps believed as little as themselves; but having some leisure and more curiosity, he employed them both in resolving a question which seemed to him of some importance,— Whether Christianity was really an imposture founded on an absurd, incredible, and obsolete fable, as many suppose it? Or whether it is, what it pretends to be, a revelation communicated to mankind by the interposition of supernatural power? On a candid enquiry, he soon found, that the first was an absolute impossibility, and that its pretensions to the latter were founded on the most solid grounds: In the further pursuit of his examination, 191he perceived, at every step, new lights arising, and some of the brightest from parts of it the most obscure, but productive of the clearest proofs, because equally beyond the power of human artifice to invent, and human reason to discover. These arguments, which have convinced him of the divine origin of this religion, he has here put together in as clear and concise a manner as he was able, thinking they might have the same effect upon others, and being of opinion, that if there were a few more true Christians in the world, it would be beneficial to themselves, and by no means detrimental to the public.
F I N I S.
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