British and Foreign Unitarian Association.

A review of Dr. J.P. Smith's Scripture testimony to the Messiah online

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virtues, he cannot prevent the better part of mankind from admiring. We
will not stop to compare Dr. S.'s own confidence in his superior discern-
ment with our recollections of what we have seen manifested by Unitarian
writers ; but when our theology is described as " in practice not ungene-
rously rigid against any favourite passion or little foible that is decently
compatible with the world's code of morals," we are called upon to reject
the calumny ; we are entitled to express the disgust widi which it affects us.
We ask first, what there is in the doctrines of Unitarian Christianity which
should make their professors indulgent to sinful passions, and ready to con-
form their standard of duty to the merely prudential requisitions of the
worldly-minded and irreligious > Like others, they are taught that they are
constantly under the eye of an all-seeing God, perfect in holiness and purity,
who has made known to them their duty, and who will one day bring every
work into judgment with every secret thought. Is it then because they
believe that this all-perfect Being has given them laws, not for his own
glory, but for their happiness, and that the strict observance of these laws is
essential to their attainment of any real or permanent good } Is it because
they are assured that sin and suffering are inseparably connected, and that a
death-bed repentance is vainly relied upon to ave.'t the consequences of a
life of wickedness .> Is it because they are taught that they must ^* work
out TiiKiR OWN salvation with fear and trembling,'' and have not learned
to put their trust in another's njerils ? Is it because, whilst they rely on



their heavenly Father and Friend mercifully accepting their faithful endea-
vours to perform their duty, to correct their faults, and to improve their cha-
racters, they feel certain that no rational hope can be founded on any thincr
less than earnest and prevailing endeavours to do right, accompanied by
honest self-examination, sincere repentance of known faults, and constant
efforts after improvement ? On account of which of these characteristic
doctrines is it that they should be judged likely as a body, rather than other
professing Christians, to make light of the evil of sin, to find excuses for
the indulgence of bad passions, and to join themselves with those who,
thinking only of present pleasure, make the decencies of society, not the
rules of duty, the standard by which they regulate their conduct?

We ask, again, are Unitarian Christians in fact distinguished from those
amongst whom they live by being less strict in the government of their own
appetites, less honest and liberal in their dealings with others, less kind and
charitable towards their suffering fellow-creatures ? We know that they
are not generally thought so by those who differ from them most widely in
sentiment. They are often, through misapprehension of their opinions,
accused of relying on their good works, but seldom of any remarkable defi-
ciency in performing them. We have no disposition to praise them highly.
We lament that they do not come nearer to what, with their advantages,
might reasonably be expected. We would to God we could see them more
deeply imbued with their professed principles, and more uniformly acting as
becomes their high and holy calling ; but we cannot silently allow them to
be unjustly and uncandidly condemned. We well know that the faults with
which they are chargeable are not effects of their religious principles, but
consequences of these not being cherished and felt as they deserve to be :
and as the language of Dr. Smith has forcibly reminded us of those whom
we have known most truly under the influence of the peculiar religious sen-
timents in which we rejoice, most firmly convinced of their truth, and
most constantly applying them in practice — of those whose pure minds, ele-
vated affections, warm and habitual piety, strict integrity, and active bene-
volence, have been to our conceptions a genuine and glowing representation
of the Christian life— of some who yet remain to edify ^and bless their
friends— of others who have already found their faith triumphant over death,
and have closed their pilgrimage as became those who had spent it in pre-
paration for that better world, of which through the gospel of Jesus they
entertained an assured expectation — that language has apj_ eared to us so
inexcusably unjust, so entirely founded in culpable ignorance and preju-
dice, and dictated by so arrogantly censorious a spirit, that whilst we appeal
from his judgment, we cannot help reminding him of the responsibility under
which he has passed sentence upon us.

In his fifth chapter. Dr. S. makes somewhat more particular charges
against the conduct of Unitarians, which, that we may not have to return to
the subject, we shall here notice. He accuses them of being generally, " so
far as station and circumstances afford opportunities," devoted to " all the
forms of gay amusement and fiishionable dissipation ;" of neglecting the
ordinances of religion, and of not honouring the Lord's-day. With respect
to the first of these charges, we cannot tell what Dr. Smith may have seen,
but from pretty extensive opportunities for observation, we feel ourselves
warranted in giving the opinion, that the members of Unitarian congrega-
tions (rneaning, of course, those who are of a rank to be within reach of the
temptation) fjeneralhj partake very moderately in the gaieties of life, and are
not justly chargeable with dissipation. It is true they do not think every



thing which has the name of pleasure criminal, and consider it as a point of
duty to abstain from it ; they do not atfect that pecuhar austerity which is
so frequently characterislic either of the bigot or the hypocrite ; but we
should describe them as concerning themselves little with the follies of fa-
shion, entering very moderately into scenes devottd to amusement, pursuing
the quiet walks of business, of social duty, and of innocent social en-
joyment.

There is, however, no sect which exhibits any thing approaching to uni-
formity of excellence among its members : each has many connected with
it who are considered by the better part as doing no credit to the prin-
ciples they profess, and beings by no means truly under their influence.
Now, it sliould be observed that Unityrianism, as understood by the majority
of its professors, not attaching to the externals of religion the same essential
and inherent importance with most other sysems, and affording no induce-
ments to hypocrisy, a thoughtless devotion to the gaieties of the world is
just the fault into which our less worthy and serious members are apt to fall;
not to mention that there are many partially connected with us, who, though-
disbelieving the doctrines of reputed Orthodoxy, and finding their remaining
belief Unitarian, have never been brought to interest themselves on the
subject, and are never acknowledged by us as those from whom a practical
exhibition of the effects of our principles could be expected. On the con-
trary, among the orthodox sects, including those members of the Establish-
ment who make any considerable pretensions to religion, a particular atten-
tion to all outward observances is essential to character : they consider ab-
stinence from the gaieties of life as a direct requisition of duty, and the faults
to which their situation most exposes them are hypocrisy and the vices
which it may conveniently cloak. That they are not all free from these
faults, is sufficiently notorious.

The Unitarian Christian does not in general feel himself under any obli-
gation to such an observance of the Lord's-day as Dr. S. deems essential to
a religious character, although not many, perhaps, may go so far the other
way as Calvin or Mr. Belsham : but it certainly is not just to accuse men of
irreligion because they wish to be influenced by their religion every day
equally, when no precept applying the strict sabbatical law to Christians caa
possibly be produced, and its practical utility may, to say the least, be
reasonably called in question.

It is not to be doubted, that among Unitarians the outward observances of
religion are commonly regarded less as the performance of a direct duty,
and more as means of improvement voluntarily resorted to, than amongst
other sects. Those who think most of the absolute duty of paying a public
homage to Almighty God, in the name of his chosen Messenger, will not,
amongst us, pretend to determine how many times in one day this may be
required ; and as on the question of expediency ditFerent opinions may be
formed, those who think most seriously do not make the same point of at-
tending worship several times on each Lord's-day with persons of a less
degree of real religious feeling in other sects; whilst indolence or carelessness
more readily amongst us find excuses for the neglect of some valuable op-
portunities for improvement. We regret this result, because we are sure
that all the services which are ever attempted by us, might be made useful
and found interesting ; to some classes of society they are particularly im-
portant; and that improvement of plan which would make them all that they
might be, can hardly be expected, except under the sanction of a zealous
and uniform attendance. We regret, then, much that our people, though



10

very many of them are exemplary, are not, speaking of them as a body,
such regular frequenters of all the services of the house of God, (there are
very few, we believe, who habitually or wantonly absent themselves from
one service,) as the members of other sects ; but we will not consent that
what we both lament and blame should be considered as provinor the ab-
sence of interest in religion, knowing, as we do, that many who will ordina-
rily attend but one service, will devoutly join in that one, and seriously
endeavour to profit by it ; knowing also that many will attend three or four
services in a day, thinking that in so doing they are performing what is re-
quired or highly acceptable, and yet not seem much wiser or better for the
whole. In short, we allow that Unitarians attach less importance to the
ordinances and public exercises of religion, as compared with its feelings
and its other duties, than their fellow-christians in general ; that, in conse-
quence, some may estimate their value at too low a rate, and indolence will
more frequently tempt the less serious among them to a partial neglect of
what ought, for our own good, and the good of our brethren, to be strictly
observed by us all : but we deny that our body is chargeable with a general
or habitual neglect of this kind of duties. There is a considerable propor-
tion of it whose zeal for the public exercises of religion goes quite as far as
is reasonable or useful ; and we deny that the partial neglect (though an
evil) by any means constantly implies indifference or impiety.

Dr. S. has shewn his want of any solid grounds for the accusations he has
made, as well as the kind of spirit by which he was animated, in the most
unfair use which he has made of a passage from an anonymous letter in the
former series of this work. (Mon. Repos. December, 1817, p. 717.) The
writer of that letter is evidently lamenting that persons belonging by educa-
tion and liahit to the Estahlishmeiity although brought to perceive the truth
of our doctrines, as they are ready in conversation to avow, often cannot be
induced so far to break through old habits and connexions as to join our
worship, either continuing to frequent the church, or going nowhere. This
Dr. S. represents as a testimony coming from ourselves to the neglect of
religious ordinances amongst us. We give him credit for having mistaken,
not wilfully falsified, the author's meaning ; but with what views did he
read, when he justified so serious a charge by evidence of such a character r

The following passage, being part of the additional matter with which our
author has enriched his second edition, may, perhaps, be best noticed in
this connexion ; we feel it to be the more necessary to ofifer some remarks
upon it, because the subject is one which has excited some uneasiness
amongst ourselves, and Dr. S.'s information has probably been derived from
papers inserted in a former volume of this work (Mon. Repos. Vol XXI.) :

** But I go farther, and make my appeal to intelligent and candid Unita-
rians themselves, whether they are not perfectly aware that a proportion, not
inconsiderable or uninfluential, of their congregations, at the present time,
throughout our country, consists of persons who do not disguise their scepti-
cism or even settled dishelief with regard to the divine origin and paramount
authority of the Christian religion ? What has produced this coalition ?
Why does it continue, with every appearance of mutual contentment ? Is not
the undeniable cause a congeniality of spirit, and a conviction, on the part of
those sceptics and infidels, that the theory of Unitarianism approaches so
nearly to their own, that any remaining differences may he well accommo-
dated to the satisfaction of each party ?"

Exaggerated as we believe the statement here made to be, we acknow-
ledge that it has a foundation in truth. We are aware that in some few



11

places Unilarian congregations contain a small number of persons either
sceptical, or denying the divine origin and authority of Christianity: but
before we feel any shame at this fact, or admit tlie justice of any unfavour-
able inferences from it, we must inquire, first, why such persons desire to
join our societies ; secondly, what is impUed on our part in receiving thera
as fellow-worshipers; and, thirdly, what are the actual, or what will be the
probable, effects of ihe union so far as it exists. Now, as to the first point,
it is plain that no one will attend on Unitarian services from mere worldly
motives, because the most open opposition to all rehgion is not more unpo-
pular — is, indeed, by many even less severely condemned, than the testimony
against its corruptions which is borne by Unitarians. Those who in reject-
ing revelation despise all religion, either frequent no place of worship, or go
to the Established Church, from motives of interest or fashion. Those, on
the contrary, who believe in the existence, perfections, and government of
God, in the necessity of virtue to human happiness, and in a future retribu-
tory state — who consequently desire to pay public homage to God, and to
Hsien to moral instructions and exhortations— if from any cause they find it
not convenient to have services on their own principles, will, of course,
wish to attend where they hear most of what they approve, and least of what
they disapprove, and will thus be naturally led to Unitarian places of wor-
ship. They can have no motive for appearing there but what is creditable
to themselves— the desire of shewing respect for practical religion, and in
the purest form which circumstances admit of paying their social homage to
the God of Nature and of Providence. If, as many do, though in our judg-
ment inconsistently with the rejection of his divine authority, they regard
the morality taught by Christ as most excellent, and his character as deserv-
ing of respect, they will hear m a Unitarian service nothing to disgust them,
though a good deal which they cannot admit as true, and their coming can
be taken only as a testimony of their desire to cultivate pious affections, and
to promote their moral improvement. As no confession of faith is required,
they are guilty of no insincerity, and cannot be accused of making any false
professions — to which, indeed, no possible inducement is held out. What,
then, let us next inquire, is implied on the part of Unitarian Christians in
receiving as fellow-woishipers those who do not believe in the divine mis-
sion of him who is acknowledged as their Lord and Saviour ? And here it
is important to observe, that the English Presbyterian congregations, which
form tlie great majority of those now entertaining Unitarian sentiments, in
consequence at first of the impossibility of practically carrying into effect, in
their circumstances, the mode of church government which they approved,
and afterwards of a growing attachment to religious liberty, and jealousy of
all interferences with it, have long been entirely without any attempt at a
church constitution or discipline. A minister of the general religious senti-
ments of the majority of the people, and who is believed to possess suitable
qualifications, is chosen, who, studying the Scriptures freely for himself, is to
teach what he believes to be Gospel truth. All who desire to hear his instruc-
tions, constitute the congregation. There is no creed ; no man is called in
question by his brethren respecting his faith ; the minister does not feel him-
self justified in going beyond friendly advice and such discussion as may
seem to him Hkely to be useful. The ordinances of religion are closed
against no one who satisfies his own conscience as to the propriety of his
partaking in them, and no one is subjected to unpleasant proceedings if he
think it right to absent himself from any of them ; and thus, in fact, until
new regulations are made for the purpose, it is not in the power of a con-



12

gregalion of Unitarian Christians to prevent their being joined by any other
persons who may desire to be numbered amongst them.

If congregations of Unitarian Christians were voluntary associations of
persons deliberately making profession of certain common principles, and
therefore, of course, excluding those who think differently, we know not
that any one could question their right thus to constitute themselves, or, so
long as there is no desire to inflict any injury on others thinking differently,
could liave any reasonable cause for complaint. In that case, though any one
might come as a hearer, none could be a member of the society who could
not make a solemn declaration of belief in the same sentiments. But what,
let us now ask, should we gain as to the usefulness of our services by such a
measure ? We should discourage the conscientious Deist, or the yet hesi-
tating Sceptic, from attending the only public services in which they can join
with advantage, and which, we trust, have a tendency to correct what we
regard as their very serious errors, as well as to encourao:e their juster senti-
ments and excite their better feelings ; and we should do this from the
selfish hope of standing some trifle higher in the estimation of those who,
in the face of our most solemn declarations of our belief in the divine
authority of our Saviour, and in the inestimable benefit of his mission, can
still accuse us of congeniality of sentiment respecting the character and
claims of the gospel with sceptics and infidels. Are we, then, ashamed
because even those who cannot bring themselves to admit the revelation to
which we gratefully ascribe all our light and all our hopes, yet acknowledge
that our doctrines appear to them to be those of true and practical religion,
and that they themselves are happier and better for listening to them ? Are
we grieved because almost they are persuaded to be Christians — because
they allow the truth and goodness of our instructions, and the force of the
additional arguments by which we recommend them, even whilst they call
in question their having been communicated by divine authority ? We must,
indeed, think that those who reject Christianity, even if they make the
most of Natural Religion, and much more than we can believe would ever
have been made of it without the indirect aid of Revelation, are yet in an
error, seriously pernicious to themselves, and fraught with dangerous con-
sequences to others; and if, in consequence of the knowledge that some such
persons came amongst us, we suppressed the expression of our own con-
victions, dwelhng less earnestly on the claims of our Lord to onr love and
obedience, or on the blessed hopes which we found on his promises and
resurrection, we might then justly be condemr.ed ; but so long as we are
only rendered more anxious to establish the authority of our revered Master,
more abundant in our labours to cause his name to be honoured, his com-
mands respected, and his promises cherished, it would be difficult to say
how our faith should be implicated in the homage which is paid to the
purity and excellence of the system we teach, even hy those who professedly
do not join with us in attributing to it a divine original. It will be recol-
lected that to such persons we make no concessions ; we advance not one
step to meet them. We rejoice that the Christianity which we derive from
the Scriptures is not repulsive to the natural reason of man, in an age of
accumulated knowledge and high intellectual culture ; but we alter not one
jot or one tittle of what we find in the Scriptures to satisfy either our own
reason or that of others, because divine instruction is intended to supply
the deficiencies of reason, and, if received at all, must be received as au-
thoritative. We rejoice that any, who agree with us in any great principle,
will come and worship along with us; and God forbid that we should



m

threaten tbeni in consequence of the deficiencies of liieir faith, or pretend to
identify the opinions, however erroneous in our judgment, wliich they have
formed in a sincere desire to know the truth, with the corrupt and wicked
opposition made to the Gospel by the unbeheverswhom our Lord condemns.
We cannot wonder that those who, on ojrounds of Natural Religion ex-
clusively, believe in essentially the same truths respecting the perfections,
character, and government of God, the duties and expectations of man,
which we rejoice in as revealed to us through Jesus Christ, should be
better satisfied with our services than with those which are founded on
doctrines believed by them to be absurd and pernicious ; and we have no
wish to close our doors against them. They are not of us; but they are
willing to be with us — we hope they will not be the worse for joining with
us. It remains to be inquired whether they do us any real injury. What
are the effects of the union so far as it exists ? We have shewn that it is
not the result of any formal agreement between the parties, but simply the
consequence of the constitution of our congregations. A place is set apart
for Christian worship on Unitarian principles ; there is no creed or test of
any kind employed ; no one claims a right to inquire into his neighbour's
faith ; the minister feels himself called upon to do all which circumstances
will allow, publicly and privately to improve all his hearers in Christian
knowledge and practice, but pretends to no authority to mark any with the
sign of his approbation or censure ; all may enter freely; and whoever thinks
it right to contribute to the support of public worship becomes, by that act,
a member of the congregation. Since, then, it is acknowledged that serious
Deists must necessarily regard Unitarian Christians as teaching chiefly what
is true and useful, and as much nearer to them in opinions than other Chris-
tians, it is plain why some such persons have joined Unitarian congrega-
tions; and it is evident that, though they are received in all kindness and
friendship, there exists no formal or solid union between them and their
fellow-worshipers; and that from their presence no conclusion can justly
be drawn respecting the sentiments of any who profess themselves Unitarian
Christians. By their presence we are certainly injured, inasmuch as it
gives occasion for uncandid adversaries to misrepresent our opinions ; but
we trust that no consideration of this kind will ever induce us to change our
conduct towards any of our fellow-creatures. Can they, then, cause the
sentiments delivered in our pulpits to be less truly Christian sentiments ?
This is only possible either by their unfavourably influencing the choice of our
ministers, or by their causing them, through fear of off'euce, not as much as
they ought to support their instructions by Christian authority, or to dwell
on those affections and hopes which peculiarly belong to the Gospel. With
respect to the first of these means — it is a thing perfectly understood amongst
all who frequent our worship, whatever may be their own particular views,
that it is Cliristian worship to which they are giving their countenance : a
very great majority in every congregation would be both dissatisfied and
much shocked at the thought of any other. No open attempt could be made


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Online LibraryBritish and Foreign Unitarian AssociationA review of Dr. J.P. Smith's Scripture testimony to the Messiah → online text (page 2 of 15)