"1. Mankind, in all ages of the world, have been, and still are prone to superstition.
"2. It cannot be denied, but that a part of mankind at least, have believed, and still are believing in miracles and revelation, which are spurious.
"3. The facts on which religion is predicated are unlike every thing of which we have any positive knowledge."
Under the first article, the objector appealed to the known superstitions of the world: not only of the Pagan; but of the Jewish, Mahometan, and Christian world. He took a view of the present state of Asia, spake of the "voluntary sacrifices of human life to the great image at Hugernaught!" and of women "voluntarily climbing the funeral pile to be burned with their deceased husbands!" He took a view of the Inquisition in Old Spain; and finally of the various superstitious notions and practices among the different sects of christians in our own country.
Under the second article, he discanted largely on the pretension of Mahomet, and of their great influence and extent; and also of the particular tone given to the Christian religion by Constantine, who, holding the reigns of government, had superior means in extending his influence over the Christian world. Having made these remarks, the objector proceeds:]
"If therefore, he had happened only to have favoured the opinions of the Gnostics, we might have expected, and probably it would have been the fact, that the learned clergy of the present day would have held that Jesus was not a man in reality, but only a man in appearance; that he assumed a body that he could put on or throw off at pleasure; and that he died and was raised again in appearance only. Or otherwise, if he had been disposed to come down to the simplicity and understanding of the common people, then indeed Christ might still have been considered as the Jews' expected Messiah; yet we should have considered him a man, and nothing more than a man; though 'a man approved of God;' -- 'a man who hath told us the truth;' -- even 'Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph;' as it seems was the opinion of Peter, John and Philip. But the former opinion had been too long treated as heresy by all the bishops to be imbibed by Constantine, while the bishops themselves, on the other hand, had been too long contaminated with the Platonic philosophy to descend to the simplicity of the latter; therefore we have a religion, compounded, partly of the simplicity of the truth, and partly of Platonism. Constantine, however, being supported by a great majority of all the bishops, in a great measure effected his purpose; though not fully to his expectation: for it seems he did not expect that any one would presume to oppose the decisions of this grand council, which he had summoned and convened at his own expense, or at the expense of the empire, but in this he was mistaken; for many, even after this, would take the liberty not only to think for themselves, but also to speak their own thoughts.
"One circumstance more I cannot avoid mentioning in this place, viz, the conversion of Constantine from heathenism to the Christian faith. Great men, if turned about at all, must be turned about by great means! But whatever might have been thought of Constantine's conversion by the people of that day, the account given of it does not argue any thing very forcibly in my mind, in favour of the truth of divine revelation. Great men, however, are not always free from superstition; and they are just as likely to be deceived respecting things which are above their comprehension as others. This is the most charitable way in which I can reconcile the following account which, as Eusebius, the contemporary and historian of Constantine, says, was stated under the solemnity of an oath. For a full account of this extraordinary story. See the 2d vol. of Dr. Priestley's Church History, per.7, sec.9. I shall not attempt to quote it in full, nor is it necessary, and what I do quote is from memory only, as I write abroad, my books not being with me.
"Reflecting on the ill success of his predecessors in the numerous wars in which they had been engaged, when their priests and oracles had ever promised them success, and also considering the better success of his father, Constantine concluded from these circumstances that his father prayed to, and was assisted by a different god! When he prayed, therefore, he always prayed to the God of his father. And being thus praying one evening, towards the going down of the sun, with his face toward the same, he saw the appearance of a cross in the sun, with these words over it in Greek, [Greek: tetw nika] by this conquer. Not knowing, (or else pretending not to know) what this sign should mean, he called together some of the christian priests for an explanation; who explained it as might naturally have been supposed they would, that it was a representation of the cross, on which Christ was crucified, and that there could be no doubt but that he had now interposed as God, in behalf of the christians, to deliver them from their enemies, and of course from further persecution! I do not pretend to be any thing more than substantially correct in the above account (by which you will further see how I use the word substantially, about which we have had some dispute) i. e. I may, yea undoubtedly, have differed, as to words, yet I know I am correct in the most material part, and of the use which Constantine made of this supposed miraculous, or supernatural appearance. He said also, the soldiers saw it as well as himself! Now, if we give full credit to this account, what must we think of Christianity? The meek and lowly Jesus, who was led 'like a lamb to the slaughter,' without the least resistance, and who had suffered thousands to follow him in the same way, now, by a miraculous interposition, arms a man with carnal weapons, and, Mahometan like, authorizes him to vindicate his cause, and avenge his wrongs, by shedding the blood of his enemies! Or, if we do not credit this account, what must we think of Constantine? and also of Christianity so far as it can be traced to, and made to depend on his influence? That candor and charity, however, which I ever wish to maintain, will oblige me in this, as in all other cases of a similar nature, to take the middle course. I shall therefore suppose that there was some natural appearance, perhaps a parhelion, the cause of which Constantine did not fully understand, and, from the appearance in the sky around it, his fancy, aided by superstition, painted to his imagination the supposed cross, as also the Greek words, which being pointed out to the soldiers they might easily imagine the same, or, if they did not, would not like to oppose the opinion of their general. Thus circumstanced, whether he really believed it to be any thing supernatural or not, Constantine was disposed to make the most of it he could, by turning it to the best possible account."
[Footnote 2: "Upon the whole," says Dr. Priestly, (vol.2, p.96) "it appears to me most probable, that Constantine and his friends saw a natural parhelion, and that all the other circumstances were either imagined, or invented; and that the story has lost nothing in passing through the hands of Eusebius." Constantine also states (which I forgot to mention above) that "Christ appeared to him in a dream, the night following, with the very same sign which he had seen in the heavens, ordering him to make a military standard like it, and assuring him that it would be his security in battles." "By this note it will be perceived that I have compared what I have written with the part of the history from whence it was taken, and that I find nothing in it materially erroneous."]
"It appears, however, after all, that Constantine was a man of great moderation, and on the whole, a very good man: yet, that he was not wholly clear from superstition is very evident from the following circumstance. Notwithstanding his extraordinary, and what was supposed by all, miraculous conversion, together with his great pretensions; and all that he had done for christianity, yet he neglected his own baptism till he found he was very nigh his end; when he dressed himself in white, and the bed on which he lay, also all in white, in which dress he was baptised and partook of the sacrament! and thus he continued in white till he died. This was undoubtedly from a mistaken notion, that there was something really purifying in those outward ceremonies, and also from the doctrine of the Navatians, a certain sect, whose opinions it was supposed he favoured, though not very openly, i.e. if a person committed sin after having been thus purified he could not die in union with the church.
"You may perhaps object here and say, all this is to no purpose, as christianity was well established before; and had existed for nearly three centuries, and increased too, notwithstanding the many most bitter and cruel persecutions. Therefore what you say respecting Constantine only proves that christianity has been corrupted, but it is no objection against its truth. Very good. If the facts above stated are admitted, let them prove what they will, I am not the author of those facts, nor accountable for what is proved by them. The conversion of Constantine, however, if correct, bears some analogy to the conversion of St. Paul: hence, the supposition that one is not correct, brings a little doubt over the mind respecting the truth of the other: for both being by means which were supernatural; if both are supported on equal testimony, why should they not both share the same fate in our minds? Both were equally possible; it is the want of probability, therefore, arising from the want of equal evidence in its favour, which leads us to reject the truth of the circumstances attending the conversion of Constantine, rather than those attending the conversion of St. Paul. The conversion of Constantine also, if genuine, seems to have been designed for a very different object, and was attended with a very different effect. This would incline me to believe in the validity of that of the apostle's, rather than that of the emperor. Nevertheless, as it respects the facts; he who caused a light at mid-day, above the brightness of the sun, might as easily have painted the sign of the cross on his disk; and he who spake to Saul from Heaven, with an audible voice, in the Hebrew tongue, might as easily have painted letters and words in Greek, so that they might be distinctly read in the firmament!
"Leaving all ancient miracles and revelation, I will come down to those of our own times, and in our own country. -- Strange to tell, there is a sect of people now among us, who sprang up less than half a century ago, whose religion is professedly founded on miracles and revelation. On miracles wrought by the first founders of the sect, as by Christ and his apostles, and on a revelation also made directly to them, and through them to the believers, as by the inspired writers of the new testament. They appear to be something similar in sentiment, as it respects the person of Christ, to the ancient Arians; with this difference only, they conceived that as Christ made his first appearance in Jesus, the son of a carpenter, so he has made his second appearance in Ann, the daughter of a blacksmith, whom they call mother; and they consider their church the New Jerusalem, that holy city which was to come down from God out of Heaven.
In the year 1808, about the same time after their first rise as it was after the days of Jesus to the writing of the new testament, they published a history of their sect, in a work entitled 'Christ's second appearance,' or the New Jerusalem Church, setting forth their rise, progress and present state; together with their principles, customs and mode of worship. This work contains an account of their mother Ann, and the first elders; and particularly an account of the miracles said to have been wrought by them. If my memory serves me, (as the book is not by me) there is an account of about forty miracles, all of which are well attested, and though they acknowledge that most of them are inferior to those wrought by Jesus and his apostles, yet they contend that they are no more inferior to those than those are to the miracles wrought by Moses. They contend that for the plagues in Egypt, the dividing the red sea, bringing water out of the rock, feeding Israel forty years in the wilderness with bread from heaven, and that there should always fall a double portion on the sixth day, but none on the seventh, that that which fell on the sixth day, should keep two days, but on all other days it would keep but one, and that afterward, some of the same bread or manna was laid up in the ark of the covenant which kept for ages, as a memorial; also the dividing the waters of the river Jordan, and the fall of the walls of Jericho; yea most or all of these, according to reason or human appearance, are as much greater than the miracles wrought by Jesus and his apostles, as those are greater than those wrought by Ann and her elders! It is true, they did not pretend to raise the dead, but either these accounts are all fabrications and lies, or else they had among them the gift of healing, and that too miraculously. A woman who had fell with her horse, by the falling of a bridge, and had broken several of her ribs, besides being otherwise very much bruised, was cured in one evening, so that she joined in the dance! A boy who had cut his foot so that a person might have laid his finger into the wound, which bled very profusely, was cured in a few hours so that nothing was to be seen of the wound excepting a white streak, about the bigness of a common thread! and many others of a like kind, too numerous to be mentioned in this place.
"You will readily perceive that I allude to the Shakers; a people who are enjoying privileges among us which no other people enjoy, except the Friends, called also Quakers: and who are debarred from no privileges excepting those from which they either religiously or superstitiously debar themselves. Thus people, in consequence of their religion, have entirely changed their manners, customs, and modes of worship. They have also endured considerable persecution; and that they have not suffered martyrdom in defence of their religion, is no fault of theirs. There can be no doubt but that there has been fanaticism enough on their part to have done it, if there had been only bigotry and cruelty enough in the people, at that time, to have put it in execution. Let the same spirit reign among the people for a short time, which reigned in Boston when the Quakers were put to death for their religion, and the Shakers also would be able to boast of their martyrs in defence of the truth of their particular sect, and of course of the miracles and revelation on which it is said to have been founded.
"And here I wish to remark a little on martyrdom, seeing it is often brought in defence of the truth of divine revelation. I am aware that great stress has been laid upon this, and it will still be considered as one of its main pillars. I apprehend, however, that more stress has been laid upon martyrdom than what it will justly bear. If this is a test of the truth of religion, there is scarcely any religion but what may be proved true. Only make death honourable, of any kind whatever, in the eyes of the people, and there are always enough who are ready and willing to die for the sake of the honour which will be in consequence attached to their names. But only let any particular kind of death be considered, in the eyes of the people, meritorious, and the sure and certain road to endless bliss, and there will not only be enough found willing to undergo this death, if they can find any to inflict it upon them, but they will absolutely court it! Instead therefore of having my faith strengthened by reading the book of martyrs, as I thought I had some reason to expect, it has produced a quite contrary effect. Notwithstanding these accounts were taken down by the friends of the martyrs, and by them have been handed down to us, who, as we may well suppose, were rather prejudiced in their favour, yet nevertheless, it is impossible to disguise the spirit and motives with which many of those infatuated people eagerly sought and met death.
"In all those accounts it is but too clearly discovered, what has been too often the fact, that the most bitterly persecuted would have become the most violent persecutors, if there had been only a chance for them so to have done, and if there had been, in their view, an equal occasion. The persecutors of people for their religion have always considered the persecuted, either heretics or infidels; who if persecuted by heathens, unless they could be brought to sacrifice to their heathen gods, or if by christians, unless they could be brought to acknowledge the particular faith embraced by the orthodoxy of the day, were considered as mere nuisances or pests to society; and therefore for the public good, it was thought necessary to take them out of the world! While on the other hand, the persecuted have always considered that, if they suffered death in defence of their religion, they were certain of being raised to great honour and dignity in another world; a privilege which they undoubtedly believed their persecutors would never enjoy! And, whatever was the opinion of Christ and his apostles on this subject, it cannot be denied but that the idea very soon become prevalent among their followers that the distinction between them and a wicked world, particularly their persecutors, would be eternal! Under these circumstances, I do not wonder at all that men have been found willing to die for their religion; yea, and even to court death by all the means of which their own consciences would approve!
"But, you may say, all this does not account for the death of the first martyrs. Very true. I admit that it does not. But it shews that, only let the work be begun, from any cause whatever, there is no difficulty in its being continued.
"Suppose then, if you please, that the first martyrs were killed by a mob, a mere rabble, without any legal process, or even form of trial; as, from which appears by the account, was the case with the death of Stephen, the first christian martyr; and, according to tradition, most of the other apostles: (and it may be remarked here, it is only by tradition that we have any account of the death of the apostles; as all authentic documents on the subject, if there ever were any, are lost:) I say, let such a circumstance as the death of Stephen take place in any country, and in any age of the world; but more especially in that age and country in which he lived; and then let the same honour, and the same supposed consequences be attached to such a death, as undoubtedly were attached to the death of Stephen; and there can be no doubt but that others would be willing to follow the example.
"Only let the blood once begin to flow, no matter how, and then only attach eternal consequences to it, and hold out inducements of an eternal nature, and persuade men to believe them (which is not so difficult a thing as some may imagine) and you will never want for victims, so long as you can find a zeal sufficiently blind and mad; as to continue the slaughter. In this way, I conceive martyrdom, of every species and kind, may be rationally accounted for.
"But it may be said all this does not disprove the miracles and revelation on which the christian religion is founded.
"I acknowledge it does not; neither do I expect to disprove them. I admit that revelation, and of course the christian religion may possibly be founded in truth, notwithstanding the truth of all that I have as yet urged, or shall urge against it. But I call on you, sir, to disprove the miracles and revelation which I have mentioned, of a more modern date, or else acknowledge their truth. If you acknowledge the truth of those miracles, I shall expect you will conform to the religion predicated upon them; and of course forsake your bosom companion (which I presume would be a much greater cross than ever you have yet taken up,) and also your darling offspring (or else take them with you) and go and live with the Shakers!!! But if you prove them false, it will only be that people may become so infatuated as to believe in miracles which are spurious.
"For notwithstanding the smallness of the numbers of this people, which by the way, are considerable; and notwithstanding the contemptible view in which they have been, and still are held by the world; yet, you may find it more difficult to prove the falsity of their pretended miracles than at present you are aware; for they are very well attested; and some of the witnesses are still living, or were so when their testimony was first published; as also, if I recollect right, some of the persons on whom the miracles were said to have been wrought; who, no doubt, would still testify to the same things. If they testify falsely, who can help it? -- Although thousands may believe to the contrary; many of whom being too in situations, probably to have known these things, if true; yet I believe it would be difficult, and very difficult indeed, to find any who could absolutely say that those things did not take place.
"And if there is a people now existing among us, in different parts of the country, and in different, but large extensive families, whose manners, customs, and worship are all very different from ours, and who believe in miracles on which their religion is said to have been founded; and if those miracles, although not founded in truth, cannot now be proved false, notwithstanding they are said to have taken place in our own country, and ever since we were born, I would ask, ought any one to be censured for not giving full credit to miracles said to have been wrought, all of them nearly two, and most of them above three thousand years ago; and among a people too, of which we know but very little? I say, ought any one to be censured for doing this, although he should not be able to prove any of those miracles false?
"I conclude I shall not be censured for not believing in the miracles said to have been wrought by the Shakers; but let the government undertake to annihilate that blind and superstitious class of people: let them increase their numbers by persecution, which, like the effects of all other persecutions, undoubtedly they would; let them, in the course of two or three centuries, get the reins of government into their own hands; let them then follow the example of Constantine in demolishing the temples of the heathen gods; let them demolish every steepled meeting-house, and introduce an entire new order of things; let them also remake their scriptures, change in some degree their mode of worship and manner of living, and fix every thing to the policy of the state; let the old opposition be entirely extinguished, and new sects spring up among themselves; let this be the order of things for a number of centuries, and then let a man call in question the truth of Shaker miracles or Shaker revelation, and he must do it as his peril! It would undoubtedly cost him his life!
[Footnote 3: Were it not for other causes besides that of Christianity, I should think this full as likely as it was that Christianity should ever get the reins of government, judging from what Christianity was when it had existed no longer than the Shakers.]
"I might also mention here another person now living in the western part of the state of New-York, who also makes pretensions to be Christ in his second coming, and in imitation of him has chosen twelve as immediate apostles, and who has a considerable number of followers. But as this person is still living, and it is uncertain whether the sect will take much root, I choose to pass it over in silence.
"I shall only call your attention to one circumstance more, and then dismiss my second proposition.
"You very well recollect, I presume, the account given by Mrs. A -- -- , of W -- -- , N. H. in which she affirms that she saw and conversed with her husband, Mr. John A -- -- , for about an hour and a half, who appeared to her some considerable time, I believe about three months, after he had been dead! This is no fiction. Mrs. A -- -- is still living, and still affirms to the truth of what she has testified; which account you know was published by two respectable witnesses who took it down, for that purpose, from her lips.
"It is true, there has been but very little said in the world respecting this matter, and I presume, for this plain and obvious reason; the account did not correspond with the views of what is termed orthodoxy in Christianity. If if had, i. e. if he had brought as much tidings concerning the supposed hell in another world, as he did respecting the supposed heaven, the account would have been published in every magazine, in every religious tract, and in every periodical work throughout the globe! Why not so, as well as many accounts which were similar in other respects? But as this account did not favour such views, it is left to die in oblivion.
"As the particulars of this account, however, make nothing either in favour or against my present purpose, I shall not occupy time and room to relate it. Suffice it only to say, if there were no mistake or deception in the matter, this account can be nothing short of a revelation from God; as much so as any revelation which has ever been made from God to man.
"For no one can believe that Mr. A. could appear to his wife, after he was dead, unless God sent him; and if God sent him, no one can doubt the truth of his testimony. No one can well conceive of any motive Mrs. A. could have in giving this account, unless she fully believed it. Her daughter also was able to corroborate the account in some degree, by saying that she heard her mother conversing in the bedroom, but heard no other voice; and she interrogated her on the subject when she came out, by asking with whom she had been talking, &c. But surprised on being informed that it was with her father, and supposing, as she naturally would, that her mother had been talking in her sleep, she requested her to say nothing about what she had either seen or heard, saying, that no one would believe her if she did. But Mrs. A. was able to convince her daughter that she had not been asleep, by telling her of persons who had gone by her window during the time; one man in a soldier's dress, and another driving a yoke of oxen. I state these things from memory only, for I have not seen the account since soon after it was published, or at least within three or four years, that I now recollect; yet I believe I could state the whole of it nearly verbatim as it was published. Now I do not believe that Mrs. A. ever designed to state, or that she now has the least idea that she has stated any thing incorrect on this subject. And yet after all, I doubt of its reality!
"Such is my incredulity; and I see no way to avoid it. If it be a fault in me, may God forgive it; though I am wholly unconscious of it's being one.
"When one of two things presented to the mind must be true, and the truth of one absolutely excludes the truth of the other, a rational man will always believe that which to his own understanding is the most probable. Concerning therefore the account given by Mrs. A. it stands, in my mind thus: either it is all a reality, i. e. that her husband did absolutely appear to her; that he did give her the account which she has stated; and that that account is in fact true; or else, it was nothing more than the power of imagination, which a certain train of ideas and reflections had produced in her mind, which, like a kind of reverie, seemed to her like a reality. And although I should not have made the same conclusion once, yet from my present knowledge of human nature, together with my own experience, I do not hesitate to reject the former idea, and believe the latter. If in judging thus, I do injustice either to Mrs. A. or to the truth of God, I can only ask forgiveness of a wrong, which, in truth, is by no means intended. But in justice to my own understanding I could not state differently, if I knew this would be the last sentence I should ever write.
"Hence after making proper deduction for all that can be accounted for in this way, laying out of the question at the same time all that we may justly suppose were the mere glosses of the historian, or the lubricous figures of the poet, which are very peculiar to the ancient style of writing; after making due allowances also for interpolations, or what in more modern times have been considered pious frauds! and after rejecting every thing (if any such there be) which savors of gross imposition! if there be any thing left to support the truth of divine revelation, then it may rationally be believed.
"3. The facts on which revelation is predicated are unlike every thing of which we have any positive knowledge.
"Of the truth of this proposition you must be sensible; yea, unless the revelation had been made directly to ourselves, it is impossible that it should be otherwise than true. Neither of us have ever seen any thing miraculous! The ancients, however, were carried away with this supposition; the same as the moderns have been with the idea of witches, wizards, ghosts, apparitions, &c. and many things which once would have been considered ominous, are now rationally accounted for. In this way, things once supposed to be miraculous also, may have lost their supposed divine qualities.
"This much, however, I believe, and of this much I have no doubt, that Paul and the other apostles were convinced of the truth and the salutary effects of the moral precepts which had been taught and practised by Christ; and they were willing to preach and enforce them by all the means in their power, even at the risk of their lives. Believing this, and practising accordingly, constituted them wise and good men; and happy would it have been for the Christian world if they had always followed in their steps, without ever undertaking to dictate to others, either modes or forms of worship, or to use coercive means to compel men to the faith.
"That the apostles also believed in the resurrection, and also in eternal life, I have no doubt; this sentiment, however, was neither new nor peculiar to them, but had been held long before, not only by the pharisees, among the Jews, but by some of the Grecian philosophers; and the truth of it I am not at all disposed to dispute; yet nevertheless, whether the evidences on which it was founded were not originally mere visionary, like the appearance of Mr A. before mentioned, is the subject under consideration.
"There may be, and undoubtedly are principles in nature which are not yet understood by any; and many more which are understood only by a few. The operations of these principles would undoubtedly, even at the present day, appear miraculous to thousands; and must appear very extraordinary to every one until they are understood. But this I conclude is not what is meant by miracles. Respecting miracles, I have only to ask myself this question, viz. -- Which is the most likely to be true; either that men should have been honestly deceived, in the first instance, or otherwise facts should have been so misrepresented, that fabrication should have been honestly believed for truth; or else, that things so contrary to every principle of which I know in nature, should have taken place? Let reason only dictate the answer.
"Another source of evidence in support of divine revelation is prophecy. And here, notwithstanding I think it very probable that much importance has been attached to many writings, under the idea of their being prophetic, which are nothing more than the poetic effusions of a fruitful imagination; yet I have long been of opinion that there have been, and perhaps still are men in the world who are endowed, by nature, with gifts and faculties differing from men in general; and particularly, say if you please, with a spirit of prophecy, which, however, I must consider nothing less nor more than a second or mental sight. By this sense, or faculty of seeing, they are enabled to bring events which are yet future, as well as those otherwise out of sight, present to their minds; and thus they can behold them with their mental eye, as clearly as we behold objects at a distance.
"This, you may say, is visionary indeed. And you may wonder how I can doubt of the truth of miracles, if I can believe in such a chimerical idea as this!
"But stop, my dear sir, you believe in such a power some where or other; for without it there could be no such thing as prophecy, and if such a power exist, even in the universe, why may it not exist in man? For myself, I cannot account for the spirit of prophecy in man, (and it must be in man, or else men could not be prophets) in a more rational way. I should not be disposed, however, to consider such a power, sense, faculty, or by what other name it might be called, any more supernatural than the organs of sight and hearing. If the natural eye is so formed that objects may be painted on it, simply by the action of vision, to the immense distance of the fixed stars, so that we are enabled to behold them, why may not the mental eye be so constituted as to bring future events present to the mind with equal certainty?
"If such a power, however, were once known to exist, it would be likely to be counterfeited; and hence we may suppose, arose that horde of impostors, by the name of soothsayers, sorcerers, necromancers, magicians, &c.
"But even where this power exists, if it be a natural power, it must have its limits, and some may have it to a greater degree than others, and also some may make a good use of it, and others bad.
"Accounting for prophecy in this way, you will readily perceive that it is no certain evidence of a future state; for although the time may come when all creatures in all the vast dominions of God may be made happy in the enjoyment of his blessings, yet it does not necessarily follow that you and I shall exist at that time! i.e. in conscious identity!
"If I am asked why I wish to explain every thing upon natural principles, without admitting the immediate agency of the Deity, my only answer is, because to my understanding it is more rational, and of course more likely to be true.
"That men could divine, or foretell future events, or declare present things which are beyond their sight by intuition, all of which seems to be embraced in the word prophecy, is an idea which has existed perhaps from time immemorial; and however unaccountable it may seem, yet, to a certain degree, at least, we are obliged to admit the fact; but whether, after all, this is any thing more than the effect of that kind of foresight or ratiocination, which all men (idiots excepted) have to a greater or less degree, but some much greater than others, is still a question. But should I be obliged to admit the truth of prophecy, in the sense in which it is generally understood, I should account for it in the way you have seen.
"I do not perceive, at present, how a revelation could be made to the understanding of any man only through the medium of the operations of nature. Unless it were made to some of his outward senses, how could he know whether it was any thing more than a chimera of his own brain? If there were any faculty in his mind by which he could view these things over and over again, (the same as we look at the heavenly bodies) and did he always behold them in the same light, then he would feel safe in declaring that such things did exist; and unless the prophets had some such criterion by which they could determine on the truth of their predictions. I do not see how that even they, and much less we, should feel safe in placing any real confidence in them.
"The prophecies of our Saviour, however, concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, are more clear and striking than any thing else we have of the kind; and if it were certain that these were written before the event took place, it would be a very strong proof of something more than what any one can suppose could have been the result of human foresight. There must, at least, on such a supposition, have been a faculty of seeing which we do not possess. These predictions, however, if made by Jesus, must have been made in the hearing of John, as well as Matthew; and of course, he must have known them with more certainty than Mark or Luke; who, in consequence of not being personally acquainted with Jesus, could have known them only from hear say; and as it is pretty generally agreed, that John wrote his gospel more than twenty years after the event took place, it is very remarkable that he should be entirely silent on this subject! John, as we must suppose, knowing of this prediction; knowing also that it had been recorded by all three of the other Evangelists, (though Luke is not very particular on the subject) and knowing also that they had all written before the event took place; and he living to see the whole verified, and then wrote his gospel afterwards, how natural it would have been for him, first to have recorded this prediction, at least, in substance, and then to have mentioned its fulfillment, as a confirmation of the prophecy! But not a word on the subject.
"This, however, is no evidence that Jesus did not deliver those predictions, and that they were not written by Matthew and Mark, and also hinted at by Luke before the events took place; yet still it raises a doubt and a query in the mind whether these are not interpolations, or else the books wholly written after the events took place, and of course these predictions put into the mouth of Jesus by the historian. When the copies were few in number, and those kept by the Christians only, interpolations might have been made without much danger of detection. The heretics were early accused of interpolating, altering, and forging the scriptures; and although they, i. e. the majority of the believers, as it is likely would be very careful to detect any thing which contradicted their views in point of doctrine, yet whether they would be equally careful respecting those interpolations which favoured the Christian faith is a question worthy of consideration.
"In Calmet's dictionary of the bible, under the word gospel, we have an account of between thirty and forty gospels, of which he gives their names, but none of which are now extant. Neither is there any thing, which I now recollect, of any disputes about the validity of the writing of the apostles, except what is merely traditional, until about the year 180, when Celsus undertook to disprove the whole. I may be incorrect, in this, however, if I am, you will correct me: for excepting barely the bible, as I have informed you before, I have no books by me on this subject.
"Another circumstance must be taken into consideration, and which bears great weight in my mind. That is, the great and astonishing difference there has been made in the state and condition of mankind by the discovery or invention of the art of printing; an art for which we cannot be too thankful, nor too highly appreciate its benefits. For it would be very difficult now to realize the situation of mankind previous to the invention of this art.
"Writing, it is true, as we may rationally suppose, was carried to a greater state of perfection at that time, than it is at present; for it was of more use, yet its use must have been very limited, and it is reasonable to suppose that a very great proportion of the common people could neither read nor write. For it could be of but little use to them, as they had nothing to read, for books of all descriptions, and upon all subjects, must have been, comparatively, very few. This, as you would readily perceive, would have a tendency to cause the common people to place great confidence in any thing that was written. Hence, generally speaking, it was sufficient barely to say, concerning any matter, [Greek: gegraptai], it is written to gain full belief.
"It is with all ancient sects, as it is with ancient nations and kingdoms; their history may be traced back until we find it veiled in mystery, and mingled with fable. We are not to suppose, however, that these things were done at the time, with an intent to deceive; but after the events, whatever they were, had passed away, and the imagination had been long in operation respecting the traditions concerning them, they are dressed up with all the appearance of real history; and might so be construed and believed, were it not for improbability. The probability is, that when such histories were first written, they deceived no one, or at least, no one thought it worth while to undertake to detect them, because, not knowing what effect they would have, they considered their errors were of no material consequence. The Shaker Book has been published nine years; and although I conclude that very few, if any, except the Shakers themselves, believe the miracles therein recorded; yet no one that I know of has thought it expedient to undertake to refute them. And unless the sect should grow to more consequence than it is at present, I presume that no one will give himself much trouble on the subject. If it should be thought necessary, however, to refute these pretended miracles, in order to prevent those in scripture from growing into disrepute, then it will alter the case.
"I am perfectly reconciled and willing, however, that whatever is truth should be true; and have not the least inclination, even if it were in my power, to alter one truth respecting eternity. This is the state of my mind exactly; a state into which it has been growing, gradually, for many years; and, strange as it may seem to you, I can assure you in the fear of that God before whom I stand or fall, and by whom I have been supported hitherto, it is the most happy state of mind in which mortals can be placed! "Gloria in altissimis Deo, et in terra pax in homines benevolentia." Luke ii.14, Beza.
"Whatever may be your opinion concerning miracles, I believe it must be admitted that there was no more of a miracle in the production of man, originally, than there was in the production of other animals; and as nature has not provided man with clothing for the body, which it does for other animals, especially those which inhabit cold climates, it is evident that man was originally produced under the torrid zone; and that he could not have lived in any other part of the world, had it not been for art. What alteration the discovery of the arts has made in the original constitution of man, it would he difficult now to determine.
"What man must have been previous to the discovery and use of fire, is difficult now to conceive. We can trace man down, however, from grade to grade, until we are at a loss to determine whether such a race of beings belongs to the human species.
"I have long desired, and should be glad if some one of sufficient learning and skill would point out to me the line of demonstration between the human and brutal creation; and say where the human ends, and where the brutal begins!
"Naturalists take care to say but little on this subject, and I believe the task would be more difficult than what people in general imagine.
"Come then, ye learn'd, ye great and wise,
"But you will say, does God inspire man with faith and hope barely to deceive him; and does he not mean that he should ever realize the 'things hoped for?' which must be the case, unless the hope is founded on a reality. Answer: Let us rather say, unless the hope be a reality. The hope of man is in fact a reality, as much so as any thing else which exists. It is, however, what it is, i. e. hope; and not what is not, i. e. the 'things hoped for.' But hope never deceives any one, it continues as long as the creature has any use for it; and it is never taken away from any (except a disordered mind, to which all men are liable) as long as it can be of any service to the creature.
"That hope is given for thy blessing NOW." -- Pope.
"Mankind, if ever, are very seldom made unhappy and wretched in consequence of doubting the existence of a future state. Thousands, no doubt, think they should be wretched in this condition: but, although I have been acquainted with a number of this description, I never saw one made unhappy in consequence. It is the fear of endless misery which produces so much wretchedness in the world. -- This idea, it is true, beggars all description! It produces that fear which hath torment. It disturbs the brain; destroys the mental faculties; and, by distracting the imagination, fills the soul with horror! It is infinitely more to be dreaded than endless death! But what fear or dread can there be in the idea of endless sleep? Surely none. People are too apt to confound the idea of the absence of immortality with endless misery, believing this to be the only alternative. This is not correct. Mortality and death are the only opposites to immortality and eternal life. The former I know is true, and yet I am satisfied with knowing, (i. e. for an absolute certainty) nothing further; nevertheless, as I feel truly thankful for my present existence, should I be so happily disappointed as to find all my doubts, founded in error, I trust, as I should be inexpressibly happy, so I should be inexpressibly thankful for a future life."
* * * * *
Dear sir, and brother, -- In replying to your seventh number, I propose taking the advantage which you have favoured me with, by the division of your subject. I hope by this, to be able to compress my remarks on your reasoning, and avoid any unnecessary protraction of this epistle.
You allow, that a "general view of the whole ground" on which the scriptures seem to rest, would be sufficient to support the truth of divine revelation, were it not for the following considerations.
1. Mankind, in all ages of the world, have been, and still are prone to superstition.
2. It cannot be denied, but that a part of mankind, at least, have believed, and still are believing in miracles and revelations which are spurious.
3. The facts on which revelation is predicated, are unlike every thing of which we have any positive knowledge.
If I rightly apprehend your meaning of "the whole ground" in which the scriptures seem to rest, a general view of which would be sufficient to support a belief in revelation, were it not for the three considerations above quoted; it occupies, at least, prophecies concerning a Messiah and the fulfillment of those prophecies by a Messiah, according to the account which we have in the New Testament.
As it will serve to circumscribe the bounds of our present reasoning, it is thought best to direct our inquiry to the consideration of the facts recorded in the New Testament, presuming if these be admitted, the prophecies will not be denied.
But have I not occasion, sir, to be surprised to find your first proposition adduced as evidence unfavourable to the christian scriptures? Was there ever a time when the world of human kind, both Jews and Gentiles, was more deeply involved in the darkness and stupidity of superstition than when the Messiah entered on his public ministry? If the doctrine of Jesus had been pleasing to the superstitious Jews, if it had accorded with the idolatrous notions of the Gentiles, (which was impossible) if his Messiahship had been espoused by both, and by their consent and influence had been handed down, and declared to have been evidenced by all the miracles recorded in the four Evangelists, do you not see that your first proposition would be of Herculean strength against this religion? On the contrary, it being well established, from unquestionable authority, that as St. Paul observed, Christ crucified was a stumbling block to the Jews, and to the Greeks foolishness, the whole force of Jewish and Greek superstition, as it opposed, serves to strengthen the evidences of our faith.
Will you be so good as to read the account which is recorded of the miracle which Jesus wrought in giving sight to the man who was born blind, and inquire carefully from beginning to end for any thing that looks in the least as if the writer was endeavouring to write a falsehood in a way to have it deceive the reader. This request might, as I humbly conceive, be made in respect to any of the other miracles; but what I had in view, particularly when this subject came to my mind, was the following words, spoken by the pharisees to him who had been blind; "Thou art his disciple: but we are Moses' disciples. We know that God spake unto Moses; as for this fellow we know not from whence he is." Is it not plain from this as well as from many other scriptures, that in the same degree that the pharisees' superstition run in favour of Moses, it operated against Jesus? I know the objector may say, the Jews expected a Messiah; but then they did not expect such a character as was Jesus. They also expected Elias to come first, but they did not expect such a character as John. You, and all the world know that the protestant clergy in Europe and America used to pray for the downfall of the Pope; but when he was humbled, they all joined in fervent prayer to set him up again. How did this inconsistency happen? Answer: The way in which it pleased God to humble the Pope, was not the way which clerical wisdom and prudence had planned; and we all see now, that they are better pleased with the Pope and the Inquisition, than they were to have him lose his power in a way which endangered their own. Now, sir, if liberal principles do obtain, and if the cause of civil and religious liberty should finally triumph, in spite of popish and protestant clergy with monarchy united, do you believe that this triumph will ever be imputed to the superstition of king-craft and priestcraft? On the ground of your first proposition this would be your conclusion. The pharisees and those who adhered to them, built the sepulchres of the prophets, whom their fathers killed, and said; "If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets." These holy men were sure that they were much better than their fathers who persecuted the prophets; they had no disposition to persecute; all the wealth in the world could not have tempted these godly saints to kill a prophet of God. However, St. Paul writing to the Thessalonians, says, "For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God, which in Judea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews; who both killed the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men." But the Jews would not have put Jesus to death if he had been a pharisee, and had not departed from their traditions and superstitions. But he was not a pharisee, nor did he adhere to their superstitions; and for this cause he was to them "a root out of dry ground." To them, he had no form nor comeliness, no, nor had he any beauty that they should discern him. Say, brother, is not this the superstition which you are urging as unfavourable to the evidences of christianity? And does not the passage above quoted from Thessalonians go to prove what all ecclesiastical history as well as the New Testament proves, that the Christians were persecuted by the Jews and by the Gentiles? Did any thing but superstition ever persecute? It surely does not aim to build up that which it persecutes: and therefore in room of its being evidence against the genuineness of what it opposes, is justly admitted as a valid evidence in its favour. It is well known that our Christian doctors, clergy, and laity have been long persuaded that a glorious day of universal peace and gospel light is not only promised, but fast approaching; and if their prayers have any influence, it is evident that the time is hastened by their means. All this looks very well, and a man would be thought to be impious, if not insane, who should intimate that these saints were superstitous or illiberal, or that they possessed the spirit of persecution. -- But what has been their spirit for, say, twenty-five years past towards a doctrine which teaches universal peace on earth and good will towards man? Is there any thing bad which they have not spoken against this doctrine? Have they not treated its preachers with all the contempt and even ridicule of which they were capable? Have they not used all their influence to keep the doctrine from being preached in their meeting houses, and have they not dealt with church members who have believed this benign doctrine of love, with excommunications attended with as many aggravations as they could invent? In a word, is there one bitter herb in all the ground which was cursed for man's sake, that has not been used against what is called the poison of this abominable heresy? If they had the power of the pope, if the inquisition were at their command, would they let such power lie dormant for want of zeal? Balaam smote his ass with a staff, but said: "I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee."
But after all that has been said and done against this doctrine of universal benevolence and grace, its progress confounds its enemies, encourages its friends, and calls to mind the parable of the mustard seed. Suppose for a century to come it should continue its advances according to what it has gained for the twenty-five years above mentioned, is it not evident that the knowledge of God would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea? But would any body then, being acquainted with the history of these times, think of making use of the superstition of our clergy to oppose the evidences of this doctrine? Would such a one say, it is probable that in those times of superstition, the clergy who had great influence with the common people, might alter many passages of scripture, and in room of using the word elect, interpolate the words all men? If I understand your argument, this is the use you make of superstition. But, sir, I am satisfied that the superstition of our times will be sufficient proof to future ages, that the scriptures which so abundantly prove the doctrine of universal salvation, were not the production of a superstitious clergy who were known to oppose this doctrine with all their learning and influence.
Now if you please, you may indulge in strengthening your hypothesis, and prove by the faithful histories of different nations, that Jews, Greeks, and Romans were most stupidly superstitious. Also that India, Turkey, and Arabia are now groaning under the ponderous weight of this vanity. Go on and enlarge on all that you have said, and point out all the superstitions of which we read or know; show how powerful this superstition is in the human heart; how it renders its votaries blind to reason and the principles of moral truth; show how hard it is to break in upon this almost invincible phalanx; but consider, sir, the blacker you represent this cloud, the brighter you render the evidences of the religion of Jesus.
You need not be informed, what the Christian world all knows, that the doctrine of Jesus Christ, founded on the miracles recorded in the four Evangelists and in the Acts of the Apostles, was propagated among Jews and Gentiles, whose superstitions, though various, rendered them both hostile to this new religion, and incited them to persecutions which subjected the "weak and defenceless disciples of the meek and lowly Jesus" to trials and sufferings, fears and temptations of which we can have but a faint conception. -- The grand hypothesis on which the gospel was advocated, and by which it succeeded in obtaining vast multitudes of Jewish as well as Gentile converts, was the resurrection of Jesus, who was publicly executed on a cross by the Roman authority instigated by the rulers of the Jews. All this must be accounted for in a rational way. The facts are as well attested as any thing of which history gives any account. The four gospels have been commented on, and quoted, and adverted too by a greater number of controversial writers, than any other book of which we have any knowledge. The epistles of St. Paul when compared with the Acts and with each other have all the necessary characteristics of being genuine, and of relating nothing but realties.
You, sir, allow that the authority on which this religion rests, would be sufficient to support it, if it were not for the consideration of your three propositions, the first of which, I trust, you will acknowledge stands in its vindication.
Your second proposition may now be noticed.
That part of mankind have believed and still are believing in miracles and revelations which are spurious, we have no interest in denying, but we feel under no obligation to admit this fact as any evidence against Christianity, or of any force to counterbalance the evidences which stand in its favour. What would you think of such kind of reasoning as should contend, that as it is evident that many have been, and still are imposed on by counterfeit money, it justifies serious doubts whether there ever was any true money in the world? Would you not reply, that as the counterfeit is entirely dependent on the true for its imposition, in room of being evidence that there is no true money, it demonstrates that there is?
It being well known, nor ever doubted by the friends or enemies of Christianity, that its founder and his apostles proved the divinity of their missions by miracles alone, it was nothing more than might be rationally expected, that impostors would rise up under those sacred pretensions, with a view to establish themselves. But if this religion of Jesus Christ, had not at first been built upon this foundation, impostors would never have thought of imposing on people with such pretensions. Impostors, therefore, together with all their deceptions, cannot, as I humbly conceive, be admitted as evidence against the genuineness of the gospel, but in favour of it.
As to Mahomet of whom you speak, I have always understood that he made no pretensions to miracles. He pretended to hold correspondence with the angel Gabriel, and to receive revelations from God in this way; but he never attempted to sanction his divinity by miracles; and indeed there was no need of this, for he declared he was commissioned from heaven to propagate his religion by the sword, and to destroy the monuments of idolatry. His kingdom was of this world, therefore did his servants fight; but they did not fight always alone, for he fought at nine battles or sieges in person, and in ten years achieved fifty military enterprizes. He united religion and plunder, by which he allured the vagrant Arabs to his standard. He asserted that the sword was the key of heaven and hell; that a drop of blood shed in the cause of God, a night spent in arms are of more account than two months of fasting and prayer. He assured those who should fall in battle, that their sins should be forgiven at the day of judgment, that their wounds would be resplendant as vermillion and odoriferous as myrrh, and that the loss of limbs should be supplied by the wings of angels and cherubim. But what you can find in Mahometism which in the least militates against the evidences of Christianity I know not. It is affirmed by writers, that he collected his ideas of God and of morals from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
From Mahomet you go to the conversion of Constantine, taking particular notice of the account given of his seeing the sign of a cross in the sun, &c. And as we are now on the subject of miracles, we must not forget the miracles of the Shakers which seem to shake your faith! Two notable miracles you have honoured with a place in your epistle, or honoured your epistle with them, which, I shall not undertake to determine. A bridge fell with a horse on it, which fell with the bridge; the rider was a woman; by the fall several of her ribs were broken, and she was otherwise bruised; but she was miraculously recovered so as to be able to dance in one evening. A boy cut his foot, the wound bled profusely; the boy was miraculously healed in a few hours. These are the miracles; but whether mother Ann, or some of her elders performed these miracles you do not inform me. It seems to be allowed that most of these Quaker miracles are inferior to the miracles recorded in the New Testament, but not more inferior to them, than they are to the miracles of Moses.
Doctor Priestley, with his usual candor, endeavours to assign a natural cause for what Constantine saw, and you are inclined to his opinion, to all of which I have no objections to make; and I am by no means certain, that a proper attention to the pretended miracles of the Shakers, might not issue in assigning a natural cause for them. But however this may be, I cannot see how the matter affects our belief in Jesus Christ. Do you not discover a difference too wide between the case of Jesus and his doctrine, and Ann Lee and her principles to admit of the comparison which you seem inclined to make? You have also mentioned the case of Mrs. A -- -- 's seeing her husband and talking with him after he was dead, which you would draw into the same comparison. That Mrs. A -- -- may have satisfactory evidence of her having seen and conversed with her husband since his death, I am not at all disposed to dispute; but here the matter ends. God has not seen fit to endue her with the power of working miracles. If this woman should come into a public assembly and work astonishing miracles before all the people as an attestation of her having seen her husband, and you and I should be present, and see these marvellous things with our own eyes should we doubt the woman's testimony?
I have already, in a former communication shown that the declaration of the apostles of the resurrection of Jesus, until it was accompanied with power from on high, was never even communicated to the public, or ordered to be communicated. But in fact the disciples were strictly commanded to tarry at Jerusalem until the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Constantine would have had no occasion to depose under the solemnity of an oath, concerning the sign of the cross, &c. if he had had power to evidence his declaration by miracles. If Ann Lee's disciples will heal the sick, restore the lame, and raise the dead in so public a manner that the people at large may know these facts, then, sir, they will no longer need to purchase poor children in order to increase their societies. And if God should see fit to call me from my wife and children by such evidences as these, I hope I should not disobey his divine mandate.
But will you reply, that miracles having ceased, we have no right to expect them? In return it may be asked, how we are assured that miracles are not now necessary as they were twenty or thirty years ago? Will you retort this question and ask why miracles are not now as necessary to evince the truth of christianity as in the days of Jesus and his apostles? To this we reply: the miracles on which the gospel was founded, or propagated, were of the most extraordinary kind; they were of extensive publicity, and of ocular notoriety; they were vastly numerous, extending to the infirmed of all descriptions; and they were continued long enough to answer the purpose for which they were intended.
You will feel satisfied that the enemies of Jesus and his apostles knew for certainty, that those miracles wrought by them were realities; and that they, in room of imputing them to the divine agency, violated their own reason, by referring to an evil agent such power and acts of goodness; I say you will feel satisfied of all this, if you will set down and read all the accounts relative to this subject, in the four gospels, carefully regarding this question: Do these writers discover any marks of deception or fraud?
In no instance do the evangelists betray the least anxiety for fear what they relate will not be credited. Even when they pen the astonishing miracles of which they pretend to be eye witnesses, they make no pause to clear up any thing; but tell the whole as if the whole was publicly known. In a word, this history, this sacred testimony, carries its own competent evidence within itself.
It has been noticed by those who have written on this subject, as evidence that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the real authors of those books which bear their respective names, that a great many passages are alluded to or quoted from the evangelists, exactly as we read them now, by a regular succession of Christian writers, from the time of the apostles down to this hour; and at a very early period their names are mentioned as the authors of their respective gospels; which is more than can he said of any other historian whatever. See Lardner and Paley. I will not call up Ann Lee in this place, but I will suppose an attempt should be made now in New-England to convince Trinitarians of the error of supposing there are three persons in the Godhead. This shall be undertaken by men who are wicked enough to attempt to deceive by pretended miracles. One is selected as a leader, and the others to the number of twelve profess to be his followers. The leader pretends to a revelation from God, the substance of which is, that Jesus Christ is a created being and dependent on the Father. This doctrine he preaches and directs his followers to go into every town in New-England and proclaim this truth to the people, and exhort them to repent of their former doctrine and turn to God. This impostor pretends to work miracles in confirmation of his divine mission; and also pretends to give his disciples power to work miracles. He informs his friends that he is to lose his life and that they must lose their's, in order to establish this doctrine. Stop, we have come to an absurdity. Who would undertake to deceive their fellow creatures for no other reward than the loss of their lives? But let us pursue on. This leader pretends to give sight to blind people, to heal the sick with a word, and to raise the dead. It is reported all round the country that many such cases have actually taken place; that the blind do receive their sight, the sick are raised to health at once, and one man in particular who was dead four days, has been called out of his grave. People now are waked up; many believe the reports; thousands are flocking from place to place to hear this man and to see his miracles. In this case who would be most likely to place themselves very near to this pretender? Who would one expect to find near his person? Answer, some of the Trinitarians; chosen ones too; men of sound judgment, and who could be depended on as able to detect any fraud. How long is it reasonable to suppose these pretensions could possibly continue with any success? It may be asked likewise, whether all honest, reasonable, and candid Unitarians would not express their abhorrence of such pretensions? Are you, sir, of opinion that such a fraud could possibly be managed in a way to insure success? A moment's reflection is sufficient to put the question to rest.
But we will still pursue our supposition. The Trinitarians enter a complaint against this teacher, to the authorities, alleging that he is guilty of treason; he is arrested, convicted, and publicly executed. At the time of his arrest his disciples all forsake him, and one being found near him denies that he knows the man. All is over now, and people go about their common avocations; once in a while a word or two may be dropped on the subject of the impostor, but the thing is dying away, till all at once the twelve disciples of him who was executed came boldly before the public and proclaim the resurrection of their leader, charge the rulers of the people of having murdered him, and declare that God has raised him from the dead, and appointed them to be witness of this to the people, and to preach Unitarianism. What would be thought of these men? Would the doctrine of the divine unity be likely to triumph over its opposite, the Trinity, by the preaching of the twelve? Would there be any attention paid to these men, except by authority, to disperse them and cause them to desist from such madness, and go about some honest business? But now they pretend to work miracles in confirmation of the truth of the resurrection! Enough. Suppose, sir, I should tell you that I believe such pretensions might be so managed as to succeed completely, would you not reply, that the success of such pretensions being altogether a fraud, would itself be as great a miracle as is recorded in scripture, with the addition of absurdity? You will remember that you suggested that it would require a miracle to dissuade me from my belief; and I hope you will see that you must believe in a miracle in order not to believe with me!
Will you say that the foregoing does not come to the difficulty, that the question is, was not the account we have of those things in the gospels, forged long since the days in which they are represented to have taken place? Then, sir, in room of the above supposed fraud, undertaken to propagate Unitarianism, you may take the supposition of a forged book published by the friends of that doctrine, in which just such a story is told of the first propagations of the sentiment as is told in the New Testament of Jesus and his apostles -- and the Trinitarians shall be made to act the part of the old pharisees. Can you, sir, conceive that the book would meet with any better success than the impostors themselves? Would our learned doctors of the Trinitarian school be silent while such a book was in circulation?
Would they suffer it to be handed down to posterity unanswered and unrefuted? Would they see their churches imposed on in this way, their doctrine sat at nought, and this most extravagant imposture obtain credit? Ask likewise on the other side; would honest Unitarians pay any attention to such a book? Would they impose on their fellow creatures in this way? Would they instruct their children to believe what they knew to be a lie?
It should be kept in mind that when the gospels were written and for more than two hundred years afterwards, christianity was hated and persecuted beyond what we can easily conceive, by the emperors of Rome and their wicked governors, who being authorized by special edicts for that purpose put to the most cruel tortures and horrid deaths the followers of Jesus. The superstitious priests of heathen idols, were constantly active with all possible inventions calculated to excite jealousies and sharpen the edge of persecution against a doctrine that was calculated to subvert their order and demolish their temples. It was not until A. D.311, that Maximin Galerius, who had been the author of the heaviest calamities on the christians, published a solemn edict, ordering the persecution to cease, which his indescribable horrors and painful sickness compelled him to do. The next year Constantine, and his colleague Licinius granted to the christians a full power of living according to their own laws and institutions.
For nearly three hundred years then the gospel ministry, founded on miracles, which, if not real, were as easily detected as any falsehood whatever, was oppressed by cruel edicts acted upon by the bitterest enemies. Where was all the boasted learning of this learned age? Where was all the sagacity of the sagacious? Could not a priesthood, for ages improved in scarcely any thing but imposition and fraud, succeed in detecting pretensions, which, if not real, were too grossly absurd to impose on the most artless?
You, sir, are entirely right in saying you cannot prove this christian revelation and the miracles on which it was founded, false. For if this could ever have been done, there can be no reasonable doubt that it would have been by its enemies in its first rise; but the day is past for the detection of this fraud, if it be one; for the age in which all the means of detection were in possession of its enemies, has long since passed away and those means are lost. The imposition, possessed at first of no solidity, might have been blown into the air with a breath of common sense, has magnified and petrified till it promises to fill the whole earth, and is as hard as an adamant.
We hear of no writer's undertaking to disprove Christianity till about one hundred years after the apostles' day, when Celsus wrote a violent work against the Christians, who were, at the same time, suffering severe persecutions. But this author, though a bitter enemy to Christ, allows his miracles; but like the old pharisees imputes them to a different power from that of God. Why should this enemy of Jesus, his religion, apostles and followers allow those miracles? -- It seems that there can be no good reason for this unless they were realities. You say, "that no miracles or revelations that have come down to us are supported by so good authority as those recorded in the New Testament, I admit." But how can you conceive of any good evidence of such miracles as are recorded in this book? We have no account of any testimony under oath that they were realities. And even if we had, could the solemnity of an oath be admitted as good evidence? I think not. Indeed there was no authority that would allow the apostles to depose in favour of the resurrection of Jesus; but there were no authorities that could prevent their bearing a mere convincing testimony. I have endeavoured heretofore, to show that there can be no good evidence of such a fact as the resurrection, which is capable of being refuted; and I will here add, of admitting reasonable doubts of the fact, in the mind. It is a question which properly belongs to this subject, and which should be often called up, whether the evidences of the resurrection were not as strong as they could have been, both to the disciples and to those who believed on Jesus through their testimony; and furthermore, whether we can conceive how the evidences could have been stronger on which we believe, without perpetual miracles, which not only seems an absurdity, but would, if as powerful as they were at first, preclude the exercise of our reasoning faculties and the necessity of investigation, which is one of the most rational enjoyments of which we are capable.
I grant, if the vulgar error, that our eternal salvation depended on our being correctly acquainted with this subject, were true, it would follow, of course, that the least difficulty in the way of our knowing the whole matter, might be attended with fatal and awful consequences. And for myself, should I adopt the popular opinion that those who go out of this world not understanding the doctrine, or believing in Jesus Christ, must hereafter be forever excluded from the blessed immortality which is brought to light through the gospel, it would be difficult for me to account for the least obscurity nameable, and much more difficult would it be to account for the limited circle in which divine truth has been caused to shine. But I have before intimated that the consequences of our unbelief here, can with no more propriety be carried into an eternal state, than the consequences of our ignorance of any science. It is derogatory to the sacred loveliness of divine truth, either to promise any further reward to those who seek and find her than the enjoyment she brings to the soul in her own native sweetness, or to threaten those who neglect so divine a treasure with any other inconvenience than the loss of such felicity during their foolish neglect.
It becomes the philosopher and perhaps more the christian to exercise patience, but patience is sometimes tried with the bigotry and nonsense of the self-righteous, self-wise, and self-knowing, who profess the religion of Christ, yet stand tiptoe, like James and John, to call fire from heaven to consume all who do not receive their master. But the true spirit of our religion rebukes such blind zeal and foolish arrogance, by showing that such a disposition is the malady which the gospel is designed to cure. While the Christian clergy have spent their breath and wore out their lungs in anathematising with eternal vengeance, those whom they call infidels, have been worse than infidels, and brought a greater stigma on the name of Jesus, than his open enemies from Celsus down to T. Paine. I would by all means except from the above remark a goodly number who have done honour to our religion by treating its opposers, as its spirit dictates, with candor and sound argument well mingled with divine charity.
Indeed I think I see much reason to look on what is called infidelity, with a charitable disposition for this plain reason, it has greatly contributed to enlighten the Christian commonwealth, by calling into action the very best of human abilities and directing them to search for the true grounds on which our faith securely rests.
I hardly know how I ought to reply to what you say about the persecution of Stephen, &c. At one time you write as if you would doubt the authenticity of those New Testament accounts; then again you advert to them for assistance. But why should you go over such ground, on which so much depends, as if you did not realize that the subject was worthy of a pause for consideration?
When you advert to the martyrdom of Stephen by a mob, (which by the way was the council), you take no notice of the cause of his being arrested, accused or condemned.
Let reason and candor look at the account. "And Stephen full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Celicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist, &c. Then they suborned men, which said, we have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and come upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, and set up false witnesses, which said, this man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: for we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and change the customs which Moses delivered us. And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel. Then said the high priest, are these things so?" Here follows that admirable speech of Stephen before the grand council of his nation, which defies all conjecture of forgery, and enraged his enemies against him. And they stoned him for pretended blasphemy. The concluding clause of this speech is particularly worthy of notice. "Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the just one; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers; who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it." Now, sir, is there any more evidence for believing that there was such a man as Stephen stoned according to the above account, than for believing that he was stoned by the authority of the council, and for what is here set forth?
This council which put Stephen to death, was the same before which Peter was arraigned on account of the miracle wrought on the impotent man; which according to Dr. Hammond was the Sanhedrim.
But you seem much engaged to prove that martyrdom does not prove the truth of a belief for which the martyr dies. Here you have not been careful to distinguish cases. A Papist, who has been brought up to believe in the divine presence, might perhaps suffer death rather than renounce it; and yet we should not consider this sufficient to prove the doctrine of transubstantiation; but no candid person would doubt the sincerity of the martyr. But why should we hesitate to believe the doctrine for which he suffered? Answer, the doctrine is not a subject of which he could have positive knowledge. He could not be eye nor ear witness of the fact. But the testimony for which the disciples of Jesus suffered, was a testimony concerning a matter of fact, of which their eyes and ears could take proper cognizance; and if their sufferings are allowed to prove their sincerity, then it is granted that they believed in the resurrection of Jesus. If the entire unbelief of the disciples in the resurrection could be overcome, and they brought to believe that they saw Jesus and talked with him, and ate with him, and were frequently in his company after his resurrection, for forty days; and if they were willing to suffer persecution and death rather than desist from troubling the people with this testimony, it appears to me that reason will allow that this is, at least, some evidence of the truth of this astonishing fact; though this was not the evidence which carried conviction to so many thousands of the Jews as well as of the Gentiles. This we have before shown was the manifestation of the mighty power of God in the miraculous wonders which God wrought by the apostles.
You speak of the honour, which was no doubt attached to the martyrdom of Stephen, as being an inducement to others to submit to this example, &c. You hereby allow that the testimony for which he suffered was surely believed, otherwise no honour could attach to those who suffered for it. Why then do you not attempt to show the probable ground on which this testimony was erroneously believed?
I humbly conceive that your observations which regard to the uprightness of the apostles are too indefinite. You say, "This much, however, I believe, and of this much I have no doubt, that Paul and the other apostles were convinced of the truth and the salutary effects of the moral precepts which had been taught and preached by Christ; and they were willing to preach and enforce them by all the means in their power, even at the risk of their lives," &c. And this you think, "constituted them wise and good men." Here, sir, do you not leave room for the notion that the apostles would enforce their moral doctrine with the testimony of the resurrection of Jesus and their pretensions to miraculous powers, when they had no belief in the former, and knew the latter to be an imposition? If these men endeavoured to enforce any principles by practicing such impositions, however pure those principles were, these men were vile impostors, and merited all their sufferings. I solemnly protest against the wisdom or goodness of any man who is an impostor.
I proceed to notice your third proposition, which is as follows:
"3. The facts on which revelation is predicated are unlike every thing of which we have any positive knowledge." "Of the truth of this proposition," you say I "must be sensible." You must indulge me, sir, in saying that you have made a mistake. I am insensible of the correctness of your statement. The FACTS on which the Christian faith is predicated, are of that description which come within the observation of the outward senses of men.
I know of no fact on which Jesus called the people to rest their faith, that they could not as easily judge of, through the medium of their senses as of any facts in nature. See John v.36, "But I have greater witness than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me." 10th, 24th, 25th, "Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, how long doest thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ tell us plainly. Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me." 37th, 38th, "If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works; that ye may know and believe that the Father is in me and I in him."
All the works of which Jesus spake, were such as the people could know and examine by seeing and hearing, and concerning which there was no necessity of their being ignorant or imposed upon. See the account of John's sending two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he were the Christ. Luke vii.20, &c. "When the men were come unto him, they said, John Baptist hath sent us unto thee, saying, art thou he that should come? or look we for another? And in that same hour he cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits; and unto many that were blind he gave sight. Then Jesus, answering, said unto them, go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached." Of such facts the people were capable of judging, and on such facts the Messiahship of Jesus rested. And furthermore, it was on such facts that the testimony of the apostles concerning the resurrection of Jesus rested. Now it is evident that those facts on which divine revelation is predicated, are like facts of which we have positive knowledge, in all respects as it regards the case of knowing them. It was just as easy for people to know those things, as it is for us to know the things which are familiar to our senses.
If you mean by the above proposition, simply that miracles are not wrought before our eyes, it is granted; but have you shown that a continuance of miracles would more rationally vindicate the gospel, than the divine economy has done by preserving the variety of evidence which is now at our command? If this cannot be done, then the discontinuance of miracles is no reason why we should doubt the truth of this revelation. How then is your third proposition, even in any sense in which it can be true, to be understood unfavourable to divine revelation?
It may not be improper to notice some reasons why the continuance of the miracles, on which the gospel was first propagated, would not comport with the divine economy.
1st. As has been before suggested, it would, if combined with the force it first had, preclude the exercise of the mental powers of investigation.
2d. This power of working miracles must have been distributed to various sects and heresies, or by being confined to one order, prevent the existence of any other, which would be another preventive of immense reasoning, and tend to circumscribe the sphere in which the human mind is capacitated to move.
3d. The continuance of those miracles must have changed the order of nature, and continued men on earth forever, or from generation to generation; for if this power had been exercised on some and not to the advantage of others, it would look like the partial systems of men, and in room of commending the impartial goodness of God, would have refuted it.
But, the manifestation of this divine power, in those miracles on which our religion is founded, while it is attended with none of the evils which a continuance would evidently produce, besides forming an immoveable rock on which so glorious a superstructure is safely founded, furnishes an immense subject for the power of ratiocination.
You will excuse me for not noticing particularly all you say about modern pretensions to revelations and miracles, as I think it would occupy time that may be better employed. But I will observe on your opinion, that it is remarkable, that Saul when he was converted, did not go to Jerusalem to inquire more fully into the circumstances of the resurrection, that if he had done this, you would not have hesitated to make use of it against his declaration recorded in Gal. i.11, 12. "But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ."
Why do you mention that we have not a particular account of St. Paul's conversion written by his own hand? Do you think that what a man writes of himself is more to be depended on, than what his biographer writes of him? Your suggestions on this subject seem to indicate, at least, some scruples respecting this conversion, but not in a way to show where the ground of scruples lies. What is there for me to answer? Why do you treat this subject with such neglect? In a former communication, I requested your attention to it in a special manner, with a view to confine our reasoning to our subject, and to avoid rambling from one thing to another without making ourselves acquainted with any thing. In your reply you never attempted to give any account why Saul should embrace the religion he had persecuted; you made no attempt to give any reason why he preached Jesus and the resurrection; nor did you assign any reason why he should be willing to suffer the loss of all earthly enjoyments and endure persecutions for Christ's sake; nor did you attempt to prove that there never was such a man and such a conversion. The subject you considered still before you, and in this seventh number you have spoken of it again, but have paid no particular attention to it.
What you say on the subject of prophecy, does not appear to me, either to reflect any light on it, or to call up any question of importance. Your query whether the books of the New Testament were not written after the destruction of Jerusalem, which would suppose that the prophecy of the destruction of that city was written after the events took place of which the prophecy speaks, is an old suggestion in which I am unable to see any thing very reasonable. And I will remark here, that men who seem to lay an uncommon claim to reason, ought to make use of it when arguing on such momentous subjects. What difference would it make whether St. Matthew wrote his gospel before, or after the destruction of Jerusalem, as it respects the prophecy which Jesus delivered concerning it? You allow St. Matthew to be an honest man. You do not doubt then but Jesus did deliver such a prophecy before his death, which was certainly before the destruction of the city. Then surely it makes no difference whether the prophecy was committed to paper before, or after the fulfilment of it. Besides, you seem to urge the silence of St. John on the subject as unfavourable to the account, because he wrote his gospel after Jerusalem was destroyed. As to interpolations which you think might have found their way into the gospels, it appears to me, sir, that a candid consideration of this subject would issue in this conclusion; if any important interpolations had been admitted, they would have produced such a disagreement as to effectually destroy the validity of the books; for if one heresy could be indulged, it is reasonable to suppose that another would be, and so on, which in room of allowing us the scriptures in their present consistent form, would either have destroyed their existence altogether, or have varied so as to confound their ideas.
For a candid, learned, and impartial view of the scriptures of the New Testament, I refer you to Paley's evidences, and in particular to his eleven propositions, which he has proved in a manner satisfactory, as I conceive to the candid inquirer.
These propositions begin on page 103, and are the following.
1. "That the historical books of the New Testament, meaning thereby the four gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles, are quoted, or alluded to, by a series of christian writers, beginning with those who were contemporary with the apostles, or who immediately followed them, and proceeding in close and regular succession from their time to the present.
2. "That when they are quoted, or alluded to, they are quoted or alluded to with peculiar respect, as books sui geneus, as possessing an authority which belonged to no other books, and as conclusive in all questions and controversies among christians.
3. "That they were in very early times collected into a distinct volume.
4. "That they were distinguished by appropriate names and titles of respect.
5. "That they were publicly read and expounded in the religious assemblies of the Christians.
6. "That commentaries were written upon them, harmonies formed out of them, different copies carefully collected, and versions of them made into different languages.
7. "That they were received by Christians of different sects, by many heretics as well as catholics, and usually appealed to by both sides in the controversies which arose in those days.
8. "That the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen epistles of St. Paul, the first epistle of John, and the first of Peter, were received without doubt, by those who doubted concerning the other books which are inclosed in our present canon.
9. "That the gospels were attacked by the early adversaries of Christianity, as books containing the accounts upon which the religion was founded.
10. "That formal catalogues of authentic scriptures were published, in all which our present sacred histories were recorded.
11. "That these propositions cannot be affirmed of any other books, claiming to be books of scripture; by which I mean those books which are commonly called Apochryphal."
The first evidence adduced by this celebrated author to prove his first proposition, proves that the gospel of St. Matthew, which contains a very particular account of the prophecy of Jesus concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, was written before the event took place. This evidence is a quotation from the epistle of Barnabas, St. Paul's companion, in the following words: "Let us therefore, beware lest it come upon us, as it is written, there are many called, few chosen." St. Matthew's gospel is the only book in which these words are found; and you will perceive by the expression, "as it is written," that Barnabas quoted the passage from an author of authority. Barnabas wrote his epistle during the troubles which ended in the destruction of the Jews and their city. This epistle of Barnabas is quoted by Clement of Alexandria, A.D.194: by Origen, A.D.230. It is mentioned by Eusebius, A. D.315, and by Jerome, A. D.392. (Paley's evidences, p.106.)
Your insinuations that the origin of the christian scriptures is involved in fable and mystery, should have been accompanied with a clear refutation of the arguments used by Lardner, Paley, and others, who have with much learning and labour traced the stream to its fountain.
I must say something on the subject which you introduce concerning man, as a species of being, or you may think me inexcusable for the neglect. There seem to be two main questions suggested on this subject; the first inquires what man was farther back than history reaches; and the other directs the mind to a "line of demarcation" between the human and the brute.
We have no account that I know of when the use of fire was not known. We read Gen. iv.22, that Tubal-cain was an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron, and if reason has any thing to do in this case, we may suppose that the use of fire was known to these mechanics. The date to which this reading belongs, is 3875 years before Christ; but there can be no reasonable doubt but that the use of fire was known long before, and that it was used in the offerings which were made by Cain and Abel.
That the discovery of arts and the progress of science have changed man from what he originally was, is no more reasonable, than to suppose that the education which a child acquires by degrees, by the same degrees changes him in respect to his nature. That the arts and sciences serve to improve and extend the human intellects is reasonable enough, but that they add any thing to the natural principles or faculties of man is not conceivable.
In fixing the "line of demarcation" between the human nature and the brutal, I will suggest two characteristics which you have noticed by which the distinction may be ascertained.
The first is the power or faculty of improving from generation to generation his condition by means of art, and knowing how to advance from one degree of science to another. This I will suppose belongs to man and is peculiar to our race of being. We know of no other animal on earth that has ever improved his condition by the discovery of the arts or an increase of science.
The other characteristic is one of your propositions, on which you build your system of doubting, viz. Superstition. This is found in no creature but such as is susceptible of religion. Man is the only religious animal, if I may be allowed this form of expression, found on the earth.
The progress which man has made in arts and sciences, and the progress he has made in divine or religious knowledge distinguish him from the brutal creation. As in the former he has run into thousands of errors, so in the latter he has wandered in darkness, with now and then a blessed ray of light which improved his mind. When the knowledge of the arts became generally defused by means of the extension of the Roman government, it pleased our blessed Creator to cause the sun of divine light to rise on the Jew and Gentile world. And gave him a covenant of the people, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of his people Israel.
Your opinion that men are seldom made unhappy in consequence of doubting a future existence, may be true in a comparative sense, for I believe there are few in comparison with the whole, who do doubt on this subject. Generally speaking, it is the few, who like the philosopher that rendered himself blind by endeavouring to find out what the sun was composed of, thought there was no sun nor any light, that so far give up a hope of futurity as to be miserable in their belief.
That the idea of endless torment, such as our clergy have represented, and with which they have most horribly terrified thousands and driven them into black despair, is more horrible than no existence at all will be allowed by every candid mind. But in contemplating an infinite source of divine benevolence, and his means of giving and perpetuating existence, and of rendering existence a blessing, the mind is not driven to the necessity of selecting between these two evils. No, sir, the mind thus employed has sweeter themes and brighter prospects -- in belief of that invaluable treasure, that divine testimony of the inspired apostle: "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive;" which sentence you nor I ever heard a preacher of endless punishment recite in a sermon in our lives, the soul rises by faith into sublime regions of future peace and everlasting enjoyment, when death shall be swallowed up of life.
I need not tell you, my brother, that it has been through many trials, afflictions, doubts, and temptations, that your feeble humble servant has found the way to this rock; you cannot be altogether ignorant of this travail of mind. Permit me then to call to remembrance the bondage we have escaped, the sea through which we have passed, the sweet songs of deliverance and salvation which we have chanted to our Redeemer in the faith of our Lord and Saviour JESUS CHRIST. And here permit me to request your assistance in giving me support, and in strengthening my hands in the work of the Lord.
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