« AnteriorContinuar »
laid in early life, many of the most favorable opportunities of being brought to a sense of their duty are lost upon them. For in the minds of such persons there are no religious impressions, not even in a dormant state, and capable of being revived by circumstances that have the most natural and the strongest connections with them. Also ideas of religion, like those of other objects with which we form an acquaintance too late in life, will never make much impression ; and being foreign, and dissimilar to all the other impressions with which the mind has been occupied, they will never be able to take place for a sufficient length of time; other associations continually taking place to the exclusion of these. Besides, as the objects about which we are much conversant are apt to become magnified in our minds, as persons unavoidably value their own professions and pursuits, and the more in proportion as they have less knowledge of others; habits and practices that are really vicious, ultimately permicious in society, and quite opposite to every thing of a religious nature, will have formed unnatural associations with ideas of honor, spirit, and other things of a similar kind; so that some virtues and religious duties, as humility, modesty, temperance, chastity, &c. will never appear to them respectable and engaging; and, on account of the connexion of these virtues with others, every thing belonging to strict morals and religion will be regarded with aversion and contempt. This turn of thinking may, for want of early religious impressions, be so confirmed that nothing in the usual course of human life shall be able to change it. The very things that are the means and incitements to religion and devotion in previously well-disposed minds, have the very opposite effect on others. Thus we see that the reading of the devotional parts of Scripture, of incidents in the life of Christ and the apostles, the meditation upon which fills the minds of some with reverence and devotion, even to ecstasy, are read by others with ridicule or disgust. No argument can be of any use to such persons, because the thing that is wanting is
a proper set of associated feelings arising from actual impressions, the season for which is over, and will never return. The contempt of religion in such persons is only increased by endeavours to persuade them of its value; so that it is much more advisable, when persons are got to a certain pitch of infidelity and profligacy, to let them alone, and entirely cease to remonstrate with them on the subject. The very discoursing about religion only revives such ideas as they have formerly connected with it, and which renders the subject odious to them.
The plain inference from all this is, that if we wish that religious impressions should ever have a serious hold upon the mind, they must be made in early life. Care, however, must be taken, lest, by making religious exercises too rigorous, an early aversion be excited, and so the very end we have in view be defeated.
IF I be asked why I write so much as I do, on the subject of the Evidences of Christianity (for many of my publications relate to it,) I answer, that both its infinite importance and the extraordinary crisis of the times call for it from every person who conceives that he has any prospect of being heard and attended to. There is no subject whatever with respect to which I am more fully satisfied myself; and few persons, I imagine, will pretend that they have given so much attention to it as I have done. It does not, however, follow from this circumstance, that I have viewed it in every possible light, and that others may not discover what I have overlooked. I have therefore wished to promote the most free and open discussion of it, and have not failed to invite, nay, to provoke, this examination, on every proper occasion.
When, however, we have done all that we can, we must leave the event to a wise Providence, whose instruments we are, and which has, no doubt, the best ends to answer both by the promulgation of Christianity, and the present remarkable progress of infidelity. And believing this, we should not, after doing what we conceive to be our duty, make ourselves unhappy; though influenced, as we necessarily are, by the objects that are nearest to us, it must give pain to every zealous Christian to see so many persons, for whose intellectual and moral improvement he is concerned, and especially his near friends and relations, carried away by the torrent, which he sees to sweep before it every principle that he feels to be most valuable and useful to himself; leaving
them mere worldly-minded beings instead of heavenly-minded, bounding their prospects by the grave, when his own most pleasing prospects are beyond it.
When I read the Scriptures, in which I have increasing satisfaction as I advance in life, the animating accounts which there abound, of the perfections and providence of God, extending to all the affairs of individual men as well as those of states and kingdoms; and especially the glorious prospects that are there given us of the future state of things in the world, with respect to the great events which seem now to be approaching; and the light that is thrown over the state beyond the grave, so encouraging to every virtuous endeavour; I cannot help wishing that all persons might partake with me in them, and I feel the most sensible concern for those who cannot do it. Unbelievers cannot have the solid consolation that Christians have, under all the troubles of life, especially those that are endured for the sake of a good conscience, arising from the persuasion that all things are working together for their good, if not here, yet assuredly hereafter. Least of all can the unbeliever, at the approach of death, sing the triumphant song of the Christian, “O grave, where is thy victory ! O death, where is thy sting?”
# # #
I wish it were possible for me to convey to my philosophical unbelieving friends, the feeling I have of the value of Christianity, a value which is enhanced by the experience of a pretty long and various life, in which Christian principles have been of the most substantial use to me, both in prosperity and in adversity; and, as they have supported me through life, they will, I doubt not, afford consolation in the hour of death. But it is not in the power of language to express all that I feel on this subject. Such complex feelings as I wish to communicate, have been formed by associations that have been accumulating in a long series of events and reflections; in reading, thinking, and conversation, &c.; so that a man must have lived in a great measure as I have lived, and consequently have felt what I have felt, before he can be impressed as I am, with the language appropriated to religion, and especially the language of the Scriptures. What impresses me with the deepest reverence, would be heard by many with indifference or contempt.
My reader may make an experiment, as it were, on his own feelings, by attending to the prayer of Jesus, in the seventeenth chapter of John's Gospel, and the language of Paul, in those epistles which he wrote from Rome a short time before his death.
But animating and encouraging as their language is, to those who, like Jesus and Paul, have in some measure devoted their lives and employed their best talents, to the same great purposes, it cannot be felt, and will be but imperfectly conceived, by others. Some persons, however, who have not taken their place in the seat of the scorner, if their early education has not been very unfavourable, and espeeially if they have been so happy as to have met with disappointments in life, may conceive that there is something enviable in the state of mind in which their language could be adopted.
# # #
Young persons are apt to be dazzled with the reputation of several unbelievers, who have been greatly overrated by their friends. I feel no disposition to detract from their merit in any respect, though I think integrity the most important qualification in searching after truth. But, however brilliant may have been the talents of some unbelievers (I speak only of writers), they are not the men to whom the world is most indebted for making real advances in useful knowledge. In this respect I will venture to say, that nothing of much consequence has been done by any of them. Mr. Hume, I have shown in my “Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever,” did not advance a single step in metaphysics, in which he held himself out as having done the most. The excellence of Voltaire was that of a poet and a lively writer. D'Alembert can hardly be classed among writers in defence