« PreviousContinue »
nine Articles began to be disregarded?* And now, when Socinianism is supposed so have made a greater progress than ever it did before, is there not a greater degree of perjury, and more dissipation of manners, than at almost any period since the Reformation.
I am not insensible, that it is the opinion of Dr. Priestley, and of some others, that men grow better-that the world advances considerably in moral improvement: nay, Mr. Belsham seems to favour an idea, that, "in process of time, the earth may revert to its original paradisiacal state-and death itself be annihilated." This, however, will hardly be thought to prove any thing, except, that enthusiasm is not confined to Calvinists. And, as to men growing better, whatever may be the moral improvement of the world in general, Dr. Priestley some where acknowledges, that this is far from being the case with the Church of England, especially since the times of Bishop Burnet.
With respect to the Dissenters, were there ever men of holier lives than the generality of the puritans and nonconformists of the last two centuries? Can any thing, equal to their piety and devotedness to God, be found among the generality of the Socinians, of their time or of any time. In sufferings, in fastings, in prayers, in a firm adherence to their principles, in a close walk with God in their families, and in a series of unremitted labours for the good of mankind, they spent their lives.
But fastings and prayers, perhaps, may not be admitted as excellences in their character: it is possible they may be treated with ridicule. Nothing less than this is attempted by Dr. Priest"I could wish," says he ley, in his Fifth Letter to Mr. Burn. For the many sleepless "to quiet your fears, on your account. nights which your apprehensions must necessarily have caused you, accompanied, of course, with much earnest prayer and fasting, must, in time, affect your health." Candour out of the question, Is this piety? It is said to be no uncommon thing for persons who
* The same sort of people who held Calvinistic doctrines, were at the same time so severe in their morals, that Laud found it necessary, it seems, to pub. lish The Book of Sports, in order to counteract their influence on the nation at large.
have been used to pray extempore, when they have turned Socinians, to leave off that practice, and betake themselves to a written form of their own composition. This is formal enough, and will be thought by many to afford but slender evidence of their devotional spirit; but yet one would have supposed, they would not have dared to ridicule it in others, however destitute of it they might be themselves.
Dr. Priestley allows, that Unitarians are peculiarly wanting in zeal for religion * That this concession is just, appears not only from the indifference of great numbers of them in private life, but from the conduct of many of their preachers. It has been observed, that, when young ministers have become Socinians, they have frequently given up the ministry, and become schoolmasters, or any thing they could. Some who have been possessed of fortunes, have become mere private gentlemen. Several such instances have occurred, both among Dissenters and Churchmen. If they had true zeal for God and religion, why is it that they are so indifferent about preaching what they account the truth?
Dr. Priestley farther allows, that Calvinists have "less apparent conformity to the world; and that they seem to have more of a real principle of religion than Socinians." But then he thinks the other have the most candour and benevolence; "so as, upon the whole, to approach nearest to the proper temper of Christianity.” He " hopes also, they have more of a real principle of religion than they seem to have." As to candour and benevolence, they will be considered in another Letter. At present it is sufficient to observe, that Dr. Priestley, like Mr. Belsham, on a change of character in his converts, is obliged to have recourse to hope, and to judge of things contrary to what they appear in the lives of men, in order to support the religious character of his party.
That a large proportion of serious people are to be found among Calvinists, Dr. Priestley will not deny; but Mrs. Barbauld goes farther. She acknowledges, in effect, that the seriousness which is to be found among Socinians themselves, is accompanied by a kind of secret attachment to our principles; an attachment which
* Discourses on Various Subjects, pp. 94, 95. +Ibid. pp. 100, 101.
their preachers and writers, it seems, have hitherto laboured in vain to eradicate. "These doctrines," she says, "it is true, among thinking people, are losing ground; but there is still apparent, in that class called serious Christians, a tenderness in exposing them; a sort of leaning towards them, as, in walking over a precipice, one should lean to the safest side; an idea that they are, if not true, at least good to be believed; and that a salutary error is better than a dangerous truth.”* By the "class called serious Christians," Mrs. Barbauld cannot mean professed Calvinists; for they have no notion of leaning towards any system, as a system of salutary error, but consider that to which they are attached as being the truth. She must, therefore, intend to describe the serious part of the people of her own profession. We are much obliged to Mrs. Barbauld for this important piece of information. We might not so readily have known without it, that the hearts and consciences of the serious part of Socinians revolt at their own principles; and that, though they have rejected what we esteem the great doctrines of the gospel, in theory, yet they have an inward leaning towards them, as the only safe ground on which to rest their hopes. According to this account, it should seem that serious Christians are known by their predilection for Calvinistic doctrines; and that those "thinking people, among whom these doctrines are losing ground," are not of that class or description, being distinguished from them. Well, it does not surprise us to hear, that "those men who are the most indifferent to practical religion are the first, and serious Christians the last, to embrace the Rational system;" because it is no more than might be expected. If there be any thing surprising in the affair it is, that those who make these acknowledgments should yet boast of their principles, on account of their moral tendency.
* Remarks on Wakefield's Inquiry.
I am, &c.
THE SYSTEMS compared, aS TO THEIR TENDENCY TO PROMOTE LOVE TO GOD.
OUR opponents, as you have doubtless observed, are as bold in their assertions, as they are liberal in their accusations. Dr. Priestley not only asserts that the Calvinistic system is “unfavorable to genuine piety, but to every branch of vital practical religion."* We have considered, in the foregoing Letter, what relates to morality and piety in general: in the following Letters, we shall descend to particulars; and inquire, under the several specific virtues of Christianity, which of the systems in question is the most unfavorable to them.
I begin with LOVE. The love of God and our neighbour not only contains the sum of the moral law, but the spirit of true religion; it must therefore afford a strong presumption for or against a system, as it is found to promote or diminish these cardinal virtues of the Christian character. On both these topics, we are principally engaged on the defensive, as our views of things stand charged with being unfavorable to the love of both God and man. "There is something in your system of Christianity," says Dr. Priestley, in his Letters to Mr. Burn, "that debases the pure spirit of it, and does not consist with either the perfect veneration of the divine character, which is the foundation of true devotion to God; or perfect candour and benevolence to man.' A very serious charge; and which, could it be substantiated, would, doubtless, afford a strong presumption, if not more than presumption, against us. But let the subject be examined. This Letter will be devoted to the first part of this heavy charge; and the following one, to the last.
* Considerations on Difference of Opinion, III.