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The corruptions of Christianity have all been traced to their sources, and their progress has been described with sufficient correctness; but where is the origin of social worship among the followers of Christ, if it be not found in the Scriptures, and how can the history of its progress be separated from that of the Christian religion?
We know, indeed, it has lately been affirmedand but lately by professed, Christians—that all this mischief, as it is considered, is to be attributed to priestcraft; to the more than magic influence of hireling, ambitious, designing, hypocritical, interested, bigoted, fanatical priests, who, if public worship, or social prayer, were not in use, would lose the craft from which their gains are extracted; but who, as ecclesiastical affairs are now managed, make a trade of religion sufficiently profitable. But what does this supposition imply? In the first place, that men who possess superior means of moral and intellectual improvement, and who, generally at least, are in the habit of making considerable use of the advantages which they enjoy; who are consequently distinguished above other classes of the community by their mental acquisitions; whose stated occupation moreover is calculated to employ their attention constantly on the nature and obligations of moral and religious duties, and who are therefore usually allowed to possess habits of general integrity;-that these men, thus gifted and thus distinguished by religious advantages and in
tellectual endowments, many of whom also deservedly hold the highest stations in the scientific and literary world, in this instance conspire to render themselves deserving of universal abhorrence and contempt by practising the grossest of all impositions on mankind; by assuming the profession of religion in its most sacred form, as a cloak to cover the basest of purposes, which in comparatively few instances can have any rational hope of success, in a worldly view, worth regarding. Even among the ministers of "the church established by law," the number is a minority, who can have any well grounded hope of really bettering their temporal circumstances by assuming an office directly opposed to every thing that is hypocritical and sordid. And among Dissenters, the opponents of the established systems of faith and discipline, who is there that does not know, that of all schemes for worldly advancement, that of assuming the office of religious teacher is one of the most hopeless? How few are the instances of the profits of the profession affording a compensation at all adequate to the labour and talents that are necessary to success! If there be instances of this kind, so limited is their number as to supply no motive sufficiently powerful to influence the conduct of men possessing common discernment and common discretion. And for the great body of dissenting ministers, who is so ignorant of their situation as not to admit, that there is not the slightest prospect of temporal emolument and
worldly gain from their employment? Who can doubt, that, whilst the same abilities and the same industry exerted in other professions, or in trade and commerce, would be productive of far more comfortable and even independent circumstances, a large proportion of them devote their lives, if not to penury and distress, at least to the miseries of dependence; and dependence too of the worst kind; the dependence of one, whose office and education ought to render him the superior, upon many, whose limited knowledge and variety of tempers, prejudices, interests and failings, will frequently render his situation in a worldly view truly deplorable? Such then are the allurements which are held out to men of sense as the barter for conscience, the pay for the prostitution of their principles and their talents, whatever they may be. It is for this that persons who have greatly superior advantages for intellectual and religious improvement, and whose habits are necessarily on the side of morality, are supposed by the imputation to render themselves the basest of characters, and by the constant practice of religious imposition to become as despicable for their weakness and folly as for their total want of integrity! None can believe that to be the case with large bodies of mankind but those whose discernment is annihilated by their prejudices, or bigoted attachment to favourite opinions.
Again: What does the supposition that the whole Christian world has been hitherto deluded
by priestcraft, or the interested bigotry of priests, into the practice of social prayer, imply, but, in the second place, that the people themselves are as blind, as ignorant, or as criminal, in submitting to religious imposition, as their ministers are unprincipled and weak in carrying it into practice? The satire falls as severely upon the one as the other; and goes to show, that from the earliest ages of Christianity until now, they who have been taught have as little understanding and integrity as those who have been employed to teach; that the great body of Christians have as yet been, and still are, either knaves or dupes, or both; and that the number who may take it for granted that they alone are possessed of sense and principle united, is so small as scarcely to be perceptible. What moreover do the people gain by the imposition? Do they receive payment for giving it encouragement and support by their example and attendance? or are they universally contributing to the maintenance of what by opening the New Testament they might easily know to be the grossest deception? Our opinion of mankind however is not sunk thus low; and we consequently infer, that the universal agreement of Christians, in all ages, in favour of social prayer, explicitly declared as it is by their practice, is a presumptive argument of no inconsiderable force in its support, as a practice equally approved by reason and the Scriptures. The whole current coin of a country cannot be counterfeit, neither can the uniform
and universal practice of Christians originate in fraud, and total ignorance of the Scriptures.
It will still however be said, and why should it not? that we have the Bible, containing the rule of faith and duty, in our hands, and by examining the Scriptures for ourselves, as we have an unquestionable right and as it is our duty to do, we can discover whether or not social prayer is a practice which Christ and his apostles approved and encouraged. By this test we have not the slightest objection that the question should be tried, and have no fear for the result.
Previously however to entering upon this inquiry, the reasonableness and utility of social prayer have some claim upon our attention, as well as the practice of the ancient church of God under the Mosaic dispensation.
The Reasonableness and Utility of Social Worship.
On this part of the subject I shall beg leave, in the first place, to remind the reader of the just remark, that the Christian religion is the religion of nature explained, illustrated, extended, and enforced by higher sanctions and by motives more powerful and efficacious. In the former there is nothing inconsistent with the latter; and if there were, it could not be true; for as the light of reason is as much the gift of God for the direction of