Benjamin B. (Benjamin Blydenburg) Wisner.

Influence of religion on liberty. : a discourse in commemoration of the landing of the Pilgrims, delivered at Plymouth, December 22, 1830. online

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Online LibraryBenjamin B. (Benjamin Blydenburg) WisnerInfluence of religion on liberty. : a discourse in commemoration of the landing of the Pilgrims, delivered at Plymouth, December 22, 1830. → online text (page 1 of 4)
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DECEMBER 22, 1830.


Pastor of the Old South Church in Boston.



At a Meeting of the Pilgrim Association, held at Plymouth, Dec. 22,

Resolved, That the thanks of this Association he presented to the Rev. Dr.
WisNER for the Discourse delivered by him, this day, in commemoration of
the Landing of our Pilgrim Fathers ; and that he be very respect-
fully and earnestly requested to furnish a copy for publication.
A true extract from the minutes,

ELIJAH DEXTER, P'^'"*^^ of Association,
' ( pro tem.

To the Rev. Br. Wisner.
Dear Sir,

In the above expression of thanks, and in the request for the pub-
lication of your Discourse, we most cordially unite in behalf of the Third
Congregational Church, and those associated with it in the religious services
of this day.

Very respectfully,

your most obedient servants.

Plymouth, Dec. 22, 1830.


Committee of



Deuteronomy xxxii. 9, 10, 11, 12.


The occasion on which we are assembled is sacred to
the memory of the Puritans. Besides the descendants of
Jacob, no class of men have been made the instruments of
so much good. The infidel historian of England, — " who,"
it has been justly said,* " through the whole course of his
history, lies in wait for an opportunity of throwing discredit
upon the cause of both religion and liberty," and who, as
every one knows that has any acquaintance with his writings,
bore a specially malignant hate against the Puritans, — even
Hume has said, that, in Great Britain, " the precious spark of
liberty " was " kindled, and was preserved, by the Puritans
alone ; and it was to this sect, whose principles," in his 'view,
" appear so frivolous and habits so ridiculous, that the Eng-
lish owe the whole freedom of their constitution."! And to
them, of course, we may add, are mankind indebted for ail
the influence of the example and the power and the benevo-

* By the English translator of the " Essay on the Spirit and Influence of the Re-
formation by Luther, by Charles Villers, 8vo. London, 1805." p. 108, Note,
t History of England, iii. 76. Philadelphia, Svo. 1822.

lence of the British nation in diffusing the blessings of free-
dom and of Christianity through the earth. And here, on
this western continent, the Puritans were the principal instru-
ments in founding institutions that are now blessing more
than twelve milhons of people with domestic, social, civil and
religious privileges in an extent and a purity never before
known, and which are the admiration and the envy of the
world. These institutions, if they shall be faithfully pre-
served and adequately extended, and our population shall
advance as heretofore, will, in this land, before the children
of some now living shall die, make thus happy two hundred
millions of human beings. And from these institutions has
gone forth an influence, which has already emancipated from
the yoke of foreign despotism this whole continent ; greatly
meliorated the condition of the entire European population ;
shaken to its foundation, in that quarter of the globe, every
fabric of civil and ecclesiastical tyranny ; and promises to be,
in the hand of Providence, the chief instrument of overturn-
ing and overturning and overturning in the earth, till, every
where, "the yoke of" the people's "burden" shall be
"broken," and "the oppressed" set "free," and "right-
eousness" shall " spring forth before all nations," and " the
work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of right-
eousness, quietness and assurance forever."* Noble and
signally honored race ! In them, next after the seed of
faithful Abraham, it seems, is to be fulfilled the promise. In
you " shall all the nations of the earth be blessed. "f


This, it is at once perceived, is a radical and most impor-
tant inquiry. The inhabitants of Spain or Italy could never

* Isaiali ix. 4 ; Iviii. G ; Ixi. 11 ; xxxii. 17.

t Says Villors, a French writer, in his Essay already referred lo, written in 1802,
" Amon^ ihc vast nunil)er of remote and immediate causes vvliich contrii)uted to this
{(real event [tlic first French rcvoUitioii] must not be forf^otten the American repub-
lic." " Who can tell vviiat may hajjpcn to bolli worlds from the seducing example of
that independence which tiie Americans obtained by conquest ? Wliat new position
would the world acquire, if tlial example wore followed ? And without doubt, in the
end, it will be so." p. 244.

have established and perpetuated the New England colonies,
and accomplished the North American revolution. There
must be a certain preparation, a particular character formed,
before free institutions can be established among a people
upon a permanent basis.

There must, in the first place, be a general diffi.ision of
sufficient intelligence to enable the mass of the people to
understand and vindicate their rights. History has demon-
strated, and therefore I need not occupy time in proving, that
a people sunk in ignorance are wholly incapable of acquiring
and preserving the blessings of civil and religious freedom.

But knowledge alone does not prepare men for these bles-
sings. Some of the most eminent men for talents and learn-
ing that have ever lived, have been the most obsequious min-
ions of despotism. A community generally immoral cannot,
from the nature of the case, enjoy the benefits of free institu-
tions. Rational liberty exists in any country, in proportion
as the sovereignty is lodged in and rightly exercised by the
people. A perfectly free government is, in fact, " the peo-
ple governing themselves by an expression of their moral
feeling and their will in the form of laws." Of course, if the
people are generally corrupt in their moral principles and
habits, wholesome laws will not be enacted. And if they
were enacted, they would not be executed : for, in such a
government, those who are appointed to execute the laws
will, of course, be guided in their administration by the tone
of public sentiment. If wholesome laws exist, there must be
in the community a moral sentiment that will approve and
demand their execution. Hence the truth, which has become
a political axiom, that Virtue is the foundation of a
REPUBLIC. The mere increase of knowledge among a popu-
lation, who have been sunk in intellectual and moral, as well
as political, debasement, may produce impatience of servi-
tude, and lead to a revolution. But, as the people are not
influenced by virtuous principle, and are, consequently, not
accustomed to self-restraint, every man will think that hberty

consists in following his own inclinations ; and scenes of
anarchy will ensue, which will soon cause the return of a
general preference for " the calm of despotism." Ample
confirmation of these remarks was furnished by the first
French revolution ; and, I fear, is now furnishing by the
Mexican and South American republics. But if, while intel-
ligence has been diffused, virtuous principles have been im-
bibed, and virtuous habits formed, among a people ; then
they are capable of self-government, they are qualified to be

This indispensable preparation for liberty had been made,
and well made, among our Puritan ancestors. Hence their
complete success in establishing essentially free institutions
immediately upon their arrival in this western world, and in
preserving them during the hundred and fifty years of their
colonial existence, and, with the help of their brethren of a
kindred spirit in other colonies, perfecting them, and placing
them, as we trust, upon a durable basis, in our revolution.

The question, therefore, returns, with increased interest.
How was this preparation made ? The correct answer, as it
will be my principal object to show in this discourse, is, that


Christianity, all history testifies, is the most powerful moral
cause that has ever been brought to operate on mankind.
Affecting, as it necessarily does when its real or pretended
claims are at all regarded, the very springs of human action,
and entering into all the conduct and relations of life, it can-
not but exert a mighty influence. Wherever it has prevailed,
whether in its simplicity and purity, or in the various forms
of distortion and corruption which it has been made to
assume, it has invariably produced great effects.

As originally constituted by its divine Founder, the Church
was a well ordered republic : all the members were placed
on an equality, and there was no authority but that which was
voluntarily given to superior intelligence and virtue ; and the

only power exercised was a moral power. Thus constituted,
the Christian Church commenced its progress from the me-
tropolis of Judea. And, in less than three hundred years,
notwithstanding the most powerful and determined opposition,
it spread itself over the whole Roman empire, which was
then the whole known world.

The rulers and wise men of this world now began to per-
ceive, that if the character and influence of the Church should
remain unchanged, their usurped dominion would, for reasons
which will be developed in the sequel of this discussion, soon
come to an end. On the other hand, they wisely conjec-
tured that, if its constitution could be so modified as to bring
it into alliance with civil institutions, and make it subservient
to political purposes, as Paganism had been, it would afford a
far more efficient support of their despotic authority. The
experiment was made ; and made with fatal success. The
Ministers of Jesus Christ, who had been unmoved by the
frowns of power, were fascinated and seduced by its smiles.
The desired change was, gradually, but completely, effected.
And most deplorable were the consequences. The great
body of professed Christians soon relapsed into the grossest
ignorance ; and " the mighty energies of a religion which
connects man with eternity," were made subservient to the
base designs of an ambitious and profligate clergy in alliance
with unprincipled rulers. And all Christendom was envel-
oped in a long night of thick intellectual, moral and political

The lamp of heaven was not, however, extinguished.
During the whole period so justly denominated " the dark
ages," there were spots which its ghmmering faintly illu-
mined ; and now and then it shot forth a ray of light, which
fell upon the mind of some favored individual, and scattered
from it the gloom, which still rested on all around.

At length, after a lapse of ten centuries, the bright morn-
ing of the Reformation dawned upon the earth. An event
fraught with more blessings to mankind than any other since

that, which angels announced in the field of Bethlehem, sing-
ing, " Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace,
good-will to men."*

The grand moving spirit of the Reformation, as every one
knows, was tlie love of religion. No views of secular or
ecclesiastical ambition mingled with and corrupted the mo-
tives of the first and principal actors in its wonderful scenes.
They were excited and sustained and carried forward in
their noble achievements, by a single, ardent, enduring and
all conquering love for what they deemed the cause of God
and of human salvation.

The fundamental principle of the Reformation was — that
THE Bible is the sole depository or religious truth ;


MUST BE TO THE ScRiPTURES. " The Bible," Said they,
" THE Bible is the religion of Protestants. "f Truly
wonderful, and equally salutary, were the effects produced
by this single principle.

To qualify themselves as translators and thorough inter-
preters of the Bible, the Reformers saw they must make
diemselves acquainted with the original languages of Scrip-
ture, and with the various stores of ancient learning so inti-
mately connected with the science of sacred criticism. And
to expose and refute the reasonings of their antagonists, they
found it necessary to make themselves familiar with the
writings of the Fathers, and the history of councils and de-
cretals, and of the fluctuations and changes of civil and eccle-
siastical power, and the various systems of ancient philoso-
phy. To these studies they applied themselves, with great
dihgence and success. And to facilitate their progress, and

"* If the reader desires to sec ample confirmation of this statement, he will find it in
Villers' Essay ; a work that ought to be studied by every friend and advocate of civil
and religious freedom.

t Chillingworth afterward thus expressed their fundamental principle. The mean-
ing of this maxim is not, of course, as some have pretended to understand it, that this
was the only .icnliment which the Reformers regarded as essential, but (what the
maxim expresses) tliat all doctrines and authoritative precepts and examples iu regard
to religion must be derived ultimately from Scripture.

diffuse as extensively as possible this important knowledge,
they established colleges, and collected libraries, and sent
forth innumerable publications. The Protestant universities,
moreover, were not, as those of the Catholics had been,
resorted to by few but youth destined to the priesthood.
They were open alike to all ; and were soon crowded with
students. Emulation was enkindled ; facilities of improve-
ment were rapidly multiplied ; and a progress made in know-
ledge which, in preceding ages, would have been thought

Another effect of the fundamental principle of the Re-
formers was, to take nothing upon authority. The Church
of Rome said. Submit, without examination, to authority.
The Protestants said, Examine, and submit only to your own
conviction. And wherever the maxim was adopted, the
shackles which had for centuries bound fast the human intel-
lect were broken, and the barriers erected against investiga-
tion and the communication of thought were overthrown.
Men were made free in the inmost sanctuary of the soul, and
dared to look freely and boldly around them. Light broke
forth, and shot its rays in every direction. Mental activity
and energy were greatly promoted j and information exten-
sively and rapidly diffused.

A violent controversy was also carried on between the
Reformers and the Papists, which served still more to rouse
and invigorate the minds of men. So great were the inter-
ests at stake, and so important the consequences of victory
or defeat, that every power of those engaged in the contest
was put in requisition, and exerted to the very utmost. In-
tellectual energy was thus greatly and rapidly increased, and
knowledge of all kinds advanced. And this influence, every
where, preponderated immensely in favor of the Protestants ;
because, while their adversaries were hampered by the dicta
and conflicting opinions of Fathers, and the decrees of Coun-
cils, and the bulls of Popes, they went directly to the Bible,


and, with untrammelled minds, inquired, What saith the
Lord ?

Another consideration which must not be omitted is, that
the simple study of the Bible itself, if it be pursued with any
measure of attention and diligence, produces a wonderful
effect in elevating the intellectual character. No mind can
be frequently thus employed without being strengthened.
While the repeated, and especially the believing, contem-
plation of the sublime truths with which it thus becomes
acquainted — the wonderful facts disclosed in the Scriptures
concerning the nature and ways of God, the method of re-
deeming mercy, the realities of eternity, and its connection
with the feelings and actions of the present life — must exert,
all experience proves does invariably exert, a powerful influ-
ence in widening the range of thought and giving a new and
lofty tone to the mind.

All these influences it was the constant aim of the Re-
formers to make bear as extensively and powerfully as possi-
ble upon the mass of the people. This was another effect of
their leading principle. It says to the laity as well as to the
clergy, " Prove all things ; hold fast that which is good."
It refers all " to the law and to the testimony," and makes
every man directly responsible to God for his opinions and
conduct. Hence, wherever the Reformation extended, a
general and ardent desire was immediately excited among
the people, to qualify themselves to read the Scriptures, and
the numerous other writings on religion, with which they
were furnished by their new instructers. Schools and acade-
mies, as well as colleges, were extensively established, and
filled with pupils. While, every where, the minds of all
were continually roused to action, and furnished with know-
ledge, by the instructions of the living preacher ; who was
stimulated, by love for the souls of his people, and by the
desire of triumph for his party in the great moral conflict
going forward, to promote as extensively as possible, among


all classes, and by every means, a thorough knowledge of
the doctrines and duties of religion.

By these various means, in those countries which em-
braced the Protestant faith, science and literature, in all their
departments, were greatly and rapidly advanced and im-
proved ; and general information was diffused among the
people to an extent at that time utterly unprecedented.
Wherever the principles of the Reformation were completely
triumphant, colleges and universities were opened to all who
chose to resort to them, and the means of acquiring what we
denominate a common education were furnished to the whole

Nearly as great, and yet more important in its influence,
was the change produced in the moral character of the
people among whom Protestantism prevailed. They were
not sent to the Bible, and taught with so much fidelity by
their spiritual guides, without fruit unto holiness. Multitudes
sincerely embraced the unadulterated religion of the Scrip-
tures. And the very object of this religion, and its unfailing
influence when received into the heart, is to make men vir-
tuous. It teaches them to restrain and subdue their passions,
to master their own spirits, and govern themselves ; and to
esteem as highly, and make as vigorous efforts to maintain,
the rights of others as their own, and even to sacrifice every
other interest but that of their salvation to the public good.
Nor is this influence wholly confined to the truly pious 5 but,
where they are found in any considerable numbers, it
extends from them, with greater or less power, through the
whole community 5 affecting, more or less, the opinions, the
hopes and fears, the motives and conduct of all. Such was

* The provision made by the Congregationalists in New England, and by the
Presbyterians in Scotland, for giving to all classes a common education, is well
known. One of the Canons of the Synod of Dort, in which nearly all the Reformed ■
Churches then existing were represented, enjoins upon the Consistories of the several
congregations to provide for the establishment and support of parochial schools, I
use the phrase ' Reformed Churches' as it is used by Mosheim in his Ecclesiastical
History, to denote those churches which agreed, for the most part, in doctrine and
discipline with the Church of Geneva, in distinction from those of the Lutheran per-
suasion. Among the Lutherans also the common people were almost uni\ersally
qualified to read the Scriptures.


actually the result, in an eminent degree, of that revival of
primitive piety which followed the Reformation.*

By this intellectual and moral elevation, the people were
prepared for a government of laws. And the consequence
was that, in all countries which embraced the Protestant
faith, political changes speedily occurred decidedly advan-
tageous to the people.-j-

There were also other influences and results which must
not be passed without notice.

The application of their master principle by the Reformers
led to the discovery of that fundamental truth, so fully recog-
nized in the Scriptures, that God alone is lord of the con-
science. This all-important truth was, indeed, but partially
understood, for a time, by the most enlightened promoters of
the Reformation. By some it was disputed, and even
denied. But by that class of Protestants from whom we are
descended, it was, at length, fully understood, and received
as a fundamental truth. Thus the radical principle of reli-
gious freedom was elicited ; w^iich, by an easy and natural
gradation, led to the discovery of political rights. J

Another effect of that recourse to the Scriptures which
resulted from the Reformation was, the speedy and universal
discovery, by those brought under its influence, that there
was no warrant for that system of priestly domination by
which, throughout Christendom, the very minds and con-

* "Nothing is worlhy of more serious attention than the difFerence in point of
morals which is found between Cathohc and Protestant countries. A degree of dis-
sok\tencss and licentiousness appears in the former, which always forms a striking
contrast with what is seen in the latter, which, bad as they are, may be reckoned
pure and correct when compared with Catholic countries." Villers, p. 346, Note.

t In the now Protestant cantons of Switzerland, in Holland, and in Great Britain, the
form of the governments was changed, or essentially modified, in favor of the people.
And in the Protestant States of Germany, in Denmark and Sweden, though the con-
stitution of the governments was not altered, they became practically less despotic.
Villers, pp. 172—28.3.

\ " The will to be free in matters of conscience is the same at bottom with the will
to be free in matters of state." Villers, p. 181. " There is not a truth to be gathered
from history more certain, or more momentous, than this, that civil liberty cannot
long be separated from religious liberty, without danger, and ultimately without de-
struction, to both. Wherever religious liberty exists, it will, first or last, bring in, and
establish, political liberty. Wherever it is suppressed, the church establishment will,
first or last, become the engine of despotism, and overthrow, unless it be itself over-
thrown, every vestige of |)olilical right." Judge Story's Centennial Discourse at
Salem in 1828, p. 4-G.


sciences of men had, for so many centm-ies, been bound as
with fetters of iron. The authority of the Pope was utterly
renounced by all Protestants. The question now arose,
How ought the Church to be governed ? and was, unfortu-
nately, not, in all cases, determined by the sole authority of
Scripture. In those countries where the government con-
ducted the work of reformation, the Church was moulded to
suit the views and interests of the rulers : ecclesiastical
dignitaries were retained, who governed the Church in sub-
ordination to the king. But where the Reformation was
begun and carried on by the people, the constitution of the
Church was generally settled much after the primitive model.
The rights of the people were acknowledged. Jesus Christ
was held to be the sole head of the church ; and whatever
powers pertain to the body as a voluntary association, were
vested in the whole company of believers, and exercised,
either by themselves, or their representatives. A form of
church-government was instituted essentially popular ; which,
it will be at once obvious to every reflecting mind, would
operate favorably for civil liberty, just as certainly as men's
principles and habits will influence their actions.* An
influence too, which would be greatly augmented in that age,
from the intimate connection in which all had been accus-
tomed to view the Church and the State.

And when led to investigate the pretentions of the Pope

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Online LibraryBenjamin B. (Benjamin Blydenburg) WisnerInfluence of religion on liberty. : a discourse in commemoration of the landing of the Pilgrims, delivered at Plymouth, December 22, 1830. → online text (page 1 of 4)