Joseph Priestley.

Discourses relating to the evidences of revealed religion : delivered in the church of the Universalists at Philadelphia, 1796, and published at the request of many of the hearers online

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Online LibraryJoseph PriestleyDiscourses relating to the evidences of revealed religion : delivered in the church of the Universalists at Philadelphia, 1796, and published at the request of many of the hearers → online text (page 7 of 20)
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cidents in the hiftory of Jofeph were not
the invention of Mofes, but they have loft
nothing in going through his hands. There
is not, in all antiquity, fo affefting a nar-

With refpeft to the knowledge of hu-
man nature and human life, the Proverbs
of Solomon difcover as much of it as the
fayings of the feven wife men of Greece,
in a much later period ; and for fublimity
of fentiment, and energy of expreffion, the
Pfalms of David, and the writings of Ifai-
ah, and other Hebrew prophets, though
in a language but imperfectly known,
and though they have fufFered more than
any writings whatever by frequent copying
are infinitely fuperior to any poetical coin-
pofitions of the Greeks or Ptoinans in any



age ; efpecially if they be read in profe
tranflatioDS, which is all that we can do
with refpeft to the poetry of the Hebrews,
the meafure of which is now loft. Both
are extant. Let them be compared by
the principles of juft criticifm ; but not by
fo prejudiced a perfon as Voltaire.

The Egyptians had the art of writing
but they had no books of which we have
any certain account. The fame was the
cafe with the Chaldeans. And as to thi
Greeks, they were, in a period long after
the time of Mofes, as barbarous and ig-
norant as the North American Indians at
this day. If we many judge of the antient
Hebrews by the Jews, who are defcended
from them, we muft fay that, with refpefl:
to natural ingenuity, or induftry, they are
far from being inferior to the reft of man^
kind. They are perhaps rather fuperior,
not by nature (for in that refpefl: probably
all mankind are nearly equal) but in con*
fequence of the greater exercife of their
faculties, owing in a great meafure to the
treatment thy have met with from other



tions, and the manner in which they are
compelled to provide for their maintenance
among them. In Europe at leaft, a very
filly, or a very idle, Jew could hardly

But without any regard to the people^
let us confider their injlitutions ; and in
doing this we muft endeavour to forget,
or overlook, principles that are familiar
to us Chriftians, and which we derived
from the fcriptures, and attend fimply to
the ftate of the world in the time of Mofes,
and the principles and cuftoms which were
then moft prevalent, and which the Ifrael-
ites themfelves had in a great meafure
adopted while they were in Egypt. Ad-
mitting that Mofes, in confequence of
his having been educated at the court of
Pharoah, was acquainted with all the learn-
ing of the Egyptians, he had no opportu-
nity of acquiring morCy or indeed any
knowledge of a different kind ; and he was
not likely to improve his knowledge of
any kind by living afterwards forty years
among the Arabs, where he married, and

o was ,


was fettled; having probably given up all
thoughts of ever returning to Egypt, his
life being in danger if he did.

Notwithftanding this, at the age of
eighty, he did return, and though Egypt
was then in a ftate of its greateft power,
and his countrymen in a ftate of the moft
abjeft fervitude, deftitute of arms or
friends, he effetSed their complete eman-
cipation, in a very few months without
the lofs of a fmgle life, while the Egyp-
tians were fo weakened, or overawed, that,
though the Ifraelites continued many years
in their neighboui'hood, and without any
connexion with other nations, their old
mafters never attempted to get them back
again : and yet on account of the fervice
they had derived from them, they had
been moft unwilling to part with them.
This, however, is a circumftance, which,
though highly favourable to the fuppofition
of there being fomething miraculous in
their deliverance, I only mention by the
way, before I recite the particulars of
thofe inftitutions, which, in their ftate of



emancipation from their bondage in Egypt,
and before they had got any other fettle-
ment, Mofes deUvered to them.

In confidering thefe inftitutions, let us
pay no regard to what Mofes fays of
their having been deUvered to him by God,
but only what they are in themfelves, that
we may judge, from the circumftances of
the times, whether it be more probable
that they were devifed by himfelf, or that
they were communicated to him in the
manner that he relates. In this view of
the Mofaic inftitutions I fhall not, however,
ftriflily confine myfelf to what may be
drawn from the writings of Mofes, but
take advantage of the farther lights that
are thrown upon them in other books of
the Old Teftament, the authors of which
had 'no other fources of information. They
are all writt,en on the fame principles, and
in the fame fpirit.

I . You have feen the monftrous polythe-
ifm of all the nations of antiquity. In dired
oppofition to this, the firft, and moft fun-
damental, prmciple in the religion of the
o 2 Plebrews,


Hebrews, was that of the unity of God.
The firft of the ten commandments, deU-
vered from mount Smai is (Exodus.
XX. 2.) Thou Jlmlt have no other Gods befides
me. This precept is repeated with the
greateft emphafis through all the writings
of Mofes, and thofe of the fubfequent
prophets. Deut. vi. 4. Hear^ Ifrael^ the
Lord our God is one Lord ; and thou Jloalt love
the Lord thy God with all thine hearty with
all thy foul, and with all thy mindy that is,
with an undivided affeftion, there being
no other legitimate objed of worfhip be-
fides him.

That this principle is a juft one, will
not now be queftioned; but, compared
with the principles and pradlices which
then prevailed in the world, it muft be
pronounced to be not only juft, but alfo
great, and fublime ; being entirely remote
from the apprehenfions of the moft enligh-
tened of mankind in that age. That fuch
an immenfe, and infinitely various, ftruc-
ture as that of the world, or rather what
w^as called the univerfe, confifting of all



the vifible objefts in nature, the fyftem of
the fun, moon, and ftars, as well as the
earth and fea, Ihould have had any proper
author, and much more only one author,
that one mind fliould perfeftly comprehend,
and dired, the whole, was utterly incom-
prehenfible by mankpd; and therefore they
had recourfe to a multiplicity of fuperior
beings, each prefiding in his feparate pro-
vince; and hence the idea of the different
charafters and difpofitions, of the heathen
gods, and the varieties in their modes of
worfhipping them. It is in vain that we
look for fuch an idea as Mofes gives of the
Deity, even among the learned Greeks,
two thoufand years after his time, when
they had long been poflefled of leifure,
and every other advantage, for fpecula-
tions concerning the origin of the univerfe,
which was indeed the great objeft of their

2. You have feen in what ftrange
forms the heathens reprefented their divini-
ties, and under what fymbols, as the

figures of animals, and others, they wor-



ftiipped them, a pra^lice that muft have
fuggefted low and degrading ideas of their
gods. And it adually led to the worfhip
of the animals, and the images themfelves,
divine powers being fuppofed to refide in
them. This was univerfal among the na-
tions that bordered on Judea. The Per-
fians, indeed, who worfhipped the fun,
had no images of their god befides fire ;
but all the nations that the Hebrews in
the time of Mofes, were acquainted with,
were properly idolaters, worfhipping their
gods by means of images in various fliapes,
and the Egyptians the animals themfelves.
This fource of corruption and abufe
was effeftually cut off in the inftitutions of
Mofes. The fecond commandment ex-
prefsly fays, Exod. xx. 4. Thou Jhalt not
make to thee any graven image, or the likenefs
of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is
in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters
tinder the earth. Thou fjalt not bow down to
them nor ferve them. Alfo when Mofes, a
fhort time before his death, reminds the
Ifraelites of what they had feen and heard,



and of their obligation to refped; his laws,
he fays, Deut. iv. 14. When the Lord f pake
to you out of the midft of the fire, ye heard the
voice of the vjords, but ye faw no fimilitude,
ofily ye heard a voice. "Take ye therefore good
heed to your fives, for ye faw no manner offimi-
litude on the day that the Lord fpake to you in
Horeb out of the midft of the fire, left ye cor-
rupt yourfelves, and make you a graven ijnage,
the fimilitude of any figure, the likenefs of male
or female y the likenefs of any be aft that is on the
earth, the likenefs of any winged fovA that flics
in the air^ the likenefs of any thing that creepeth
upon the ground, the likefiefs of any fijlo that is
in the waters under the earth; and left thou lift
up thine eyes imto heaven^ and when thou feeft
the fun, and the moon, and the ftars, even all
the hoft of heaven, which the Lord thy God hath
divided unto all nations under the whole heavens^
fl)oidd he drawn to worftoip and ferve them.

The very idea of an intelligent Being,
immenfe and omnipotent, and Vv^ithout any
definite form, never occurred to any of
the heathens. It is in vain that we look
among their philofophers for any thing



fo great and fublime. The leaft degree of
attention will convince us of the greatnefs
and fublimity of it, and yet it was fami-
liar to this /g/^or^/^r and barbarous people as Vol-
taire reprefents the Hebrews to have been.

Thefe great and fplendid objefts, the
fources of light and heat, and, as was
fuppofed, of other beneficial influences,
which were the primary objefts of worlhip
to other nations, Mofes always defcribed
as having been created by the one fupreme
God, as well as the earth, which was
another great obje£l of worlhip to the
heathen world. According to the jufl: and
fublime defcription of the writers of the
Old Teftament, all things are fubjed to
the controul of this one great Being,
Dan. iv. 35. He doth whatever he pleafes in
the armies of heaven above, as well as among
the inhabitants of the earth beneath. Heaven
is the throne, and the earth the footftool
of God.

According to the principles of the
wifeft of the heathen nations, matter, if
not the world itfelf, with all the vifible



lyftem of things was eternal, and the gods
who were the objefts of the popular wor-
Ihip, arofe out of it, and of courfe after
it. For the idea they had received by
tradition of one God having created all
things, was foon loft and forgotten, fo that
he was no objeft of their worfliip at all.

The fupremacy of this one God, as
the author, and lord, of univerfal nature,
is declared in the moft emphatical terms
on a variety of occafions in the Hebrew
fcriptures. On a folemn faft, after the
return from the Babylonifh captivity,
we find an addrefs made to God, in
which they fay, Neh. ix. 5. Blejjed he thy
glorious fiame, which is exalted above all blef-
fing and praife. ThoUy even thoUy art Lord
alone. Thou hajl made the heaven, and the
heaven of heavens, with all their hojis, the
earthy and all things that are therein, the fea,
and all that is therein, and thou prefervefi them
all, and all the hojl of heaven worflnp thee.
Do fuch fentiments as thefe, and fuch lan-
guage as this, befpeak the Hebrews to
have been that ignorant, barbarous, and



fuperftitious nation, that Voltaire defcribes
tliem as having always been ?

3. Let us now fee what are faid to
have been the attributes of this one God,
the fole obje£l of worfhip to the Hebrew
nation, according to their own writings.
The objefts of the worlhip of the hea-
then nations, we have feen, were ac-
cording to themfelves, all limited in their
knowledge and powers, and indeed by
one another, one of them being occupied
in this province, and another in that.
But the God of the Hebrews is always
reprefented as omnipotent, omniprefent,
and omnifcient.

According to the fublime language of the
prophet Ifaiah (xl. 12.) It is he who has mea-
fired the waters in the hollovj of his hand^ who
has meted out the heavens with afpan^ and com-
prehended the diijl of the earth in a meafure,
hath weighed the mountains in fcalesy and the
hills in a balance. Who, fays he, has direBed
the fpirit of the Lord, or being his counfellor has
taught him ? With whom took he counfely and
who inJlruBed him, and taught him knowledge,



and Jhewed him the way of underfianding ? Be-
hold, the nations are as the drop of a bucket ^
and are cowtted as the fmall dufl of the balance.
Beholdy he taketh tip the ijles as a very little
thing. All nations before him are as nothinor,
and they are counted to him as lefs than nothings
and vanity. To whom then will ye liken Gody
or what likenefs will ye compare unto him ? Have
ye not known ^ have ye not heard ^ has it. not been
told you fro7n the beginning ? It is he that
fitteth upon the circle of the heavens ^ and the
inhabitants of the earth are as grafoppers^ who
flretcheth out the heavens as a curtain y and
fpreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in. Haft
thou not knovMty hafi thou not heard, that the
everlajiing God, the Lord, the creator of the
ends of the earth, fainteth not neither is weary?
There is no fearching of his under ft andi?ig.

What a fublime idea doth Solomon
give of the attributes of God, on occafion
of the dedication of the temple, i Kings
viii. 27. But will Cod indeed dwell on earth ?
Behold the heaven, and the heaven of heavens,
cannot contain thee. Hozv much Icfs this houfe
which I have built? In the prophet Jere-


miah, the divine Being is reprefented as
faying, Am I a God at hand, and not a God
afcir off? Can any perfon hide himfelf in fecret
places that I cannot find him? faith the Lord.
Do I not fill heaven and earth? fiiith the Lord.
The fecrets of the hearts of men are re-
prefented as known to God. Jer. xvii. 9.
/ the Lord fear ch the heart , I try the reins , even
to give to every man according to his %vaySy and
according to the fruit of his doings.

Where Ihall we find in any of the
Greek or Latin poets fuch an idea of any
of the heathen gods as David gives us of
the God of the Hebrews in the cxxxix.
Pfalm ? Lord thou haft fearched me, and
known me. Thou knovjeft my down fittingy
and my uprifing. Thou underftandeft my thoughts
afar off. Thou compaffeft my path, and my
lying down, and art acquainted with all my
ways. For there is not a word in my tongue
hut loy . Lordy thou knoweft it altogether.
Thou haft hefet me behind and before, and haft
laid thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is
too wonderful for me. It is high, I cannot at-
tain unto it. Whither ft?all I go from thy fpirity



or whither Jlmll I flee from thy prefence ? If
I afcend up into heaven ^ thou art there. If I
make my bed in the grave y behold thou art there.
If I take the wings of the mornings or dwell in
the uttermoft parts ofthefea, even there fait thy
hand lead me, and thy right hand fall hold me.
If I fay y furely the darknefs fall cover fne^
even the nightfall be light about me. Tea^ the
darknefs hideth not fro7n thee^ but the night
fineth as the day. The darknefs and the day
are both alike to thee.

The abfurdity of the heathen worfhip,
and the vain pretenfions of the heathen
gods, are finely ridiculed by the Hebrew
prophets. Ifaiah, foretelling the deftruc-
tion of Babylon, a city peculiarly devoted
to the worfhip of idols, fays, chap. xlvi. i.
*' Bel boweth down, Nebo floopeth.
^' Their idols were upon the beafts, and
*^ upon the cattle, your carriages were
*^ heavy laden, they are a burden to the
*^ weary beafl. They floop, they bow
*^ down together, they could not deliver
** the burden, but themfelves are gone
*« into captivity." Jeremiah exprefTes



equal contempt of them, when he fays
chap. viii. i. ^' Thus faith the Lord, Learn

* not the ways of the heathen, and be

* not difmayed at the figns of heaven,

* for the heathen are difmayed at them.
< For the cuftoms of the people are vain.

* For one cutteth a tree out of the foreft

* (the work of the hand of the workman,)

* with the ax. They deck it with filver

* and with gold, they fallen it with nails

* and with hammers, that it move not.

* They are upright as the palm-tree, but

* fpeak not. They mull needs be borne,

* becaufe they cannot go. Be not afraid
^ of them, for they cannot do evil, nei-

* ther is it in them to do good. Foraf-

* much as there is none like unto thee, O
^ Lord. Thou art great, and thy name
' is great in might. Who would not fear

* thee, O King of nations, for to thee doth
^ it appertain.

4. Confidering the Ihockingly cruel and
abominable cuftoms of the heathens, we
do not wonder that fuch worlhip as theirs
was moft ftridly forbidden o the Ifrael-



ites. Indeed, to preferve in the world the
knowledge and worfliip of the one true
God, was the great objeft of the inlH-
tutionsof Mofes; and a greater and more
worthy object cannot be conceived. In
the direftions that Mofes gives his coun-
trymen, how they fliouid conduft them-
felves in the land of Canaan, he fays,
Deut. xii. 2. * And ye fhall utterly de-

* ftroy all the places wherein the nations

* that ye fhall poffefs ferved their gods,

* upon high mountains, and upon hills, and

* under green trees. And ye fhall over-
^ throw their altars, and break their pillars,

* and burn their groves with fire. And

* ye fhall hew down the graven images of

< their gods, and deftroy the names of

< them out of their places.' No idolater
was permitted to live in the country of
the Hebrews, which was appropriated to
the worfhip of the one true God ; and
every Jew conforming to the heathen wor-
fliip was to be put to death without mer-
cy. It is to be obferved, however, that
the Ifraelices were not direfted to propa-


gate their religion by the fword, and com-
pel other nations to conform to their wor-
fhip. Their conquefts, and the extirpation
of idolatrous worfliip were confined to the
boundary of the land of Canaan, the coun-
try promifed by God to Abraham. Ac-
cordingly when David, who had more
zeal for his religion than any of the kings
of Ifrael, conquered all the neighbouring
nations, he did not compel any of them
to change their religion for his..

5. The characters of the principal of
the heathen gods we have feen to have
been ftained with vices of the groffeft kind,
and the moft abominable rites were prac-
tifed in their groves, and the temples
themfelves, as peculiarly proper for their
worfliip. The reverfe of every thing of
this kind is always reprefented by Mofes,
and the prophets, as the difpofition of
the God of the Hebrews. Nothmg of
impurity, or indecency, was admitted in-
to his worfhip. Nay the great objeft of
the whole fyftem of the Hebrew religion
was to form men to the perfeftiou of mo-


ral charafter, and all the rites and cere-
monies of it are conftantly faid to be
wholly infignificant without this. Be ye
holy.y fays Mofes, Lev. xix. 2. for the Lord
your God is holy.

When the Pfalmift difcribes the cha-
rafter of the man who was acceptable to
God, and fit to be admitted to his prefence,
he fays, (Pfalm i.) xv. Lord^ who Jl?all abide
in thy tabernacle^ who Jhall dwell in thy holy
hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh
righteoufnefsy and fpeaketh the truth in his
heart. On the other hand, vice and wick-
ednefs is always reprefented as the great,
and indeed the fole, objecS of his difplea-
fure. There is no peace, fays God, to the
wicked. If. vi. 22.

The infignificance of all merely ritual
obfervances, in which the whole of the
heathen religion confided, compared with
moral virtue, is expreffed in the moft em-
phatical manner by feveral of the facred
writers,^ as If. i. 11. * To what purpofe is
* the multitude of your facrifices to me,
« faith the Lord? I am full of the burnt-
p ^ offerings


* offerings of rams, and the fat of fed
Vbeafts, and I delight not in the blood of

* bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.

* When ye come to appear before me,

* who hadi required this at your hand, to

* tread my courts. Bring no more vain
' oblations. Incenfe is an abomination unto

* me. The new moons, and fabbaths,

* the calling of affemblies, I cannot away

* with. It is iniquity, even the folemn
^ meeting. Your new moons, and your

* appointed feafts, my foul hateth. They

* are a trouble unto me, I am weary to

* bear them. And when ye Ipread forth

* your hands, I will hide mine eyes from

* you, yea when ye make many prayers

* I will not hear. Your hands are full of

* blood. Wafh ye, make you clean, put

* away the evil of our doings from be-

* fore mine eyes, ceafe to do evil, learn
' to do well, feek judgment, relieve the

* opprefled, judge the fatherlefs, plead for

* the widow. Com.e now and let us rea-

* fon together faith the Lord, though your
' fms be as fcarlet, they fliall be as white

' as


' as fnow, though they be red like ciiai-

* fon, they fhall be as wool.'

'Wherewith,' faith Micah, ch. vi, 6.

* fliall I come before the Lord, and bow

* myfelf before the high God. Shall I come
' before him with burut offerings, with
' calves of a year old? will the Lord be
' pleafed with thoufands of rams, or ten

* thoufands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my
' firft born for my tranfgreffion, the fruit of

* my body for the fm of my foul? He hath

* Ihewed thee, O man, what is good, and
^ what doth the Lord require of thee, but

* to do juftly, to love mercy, and to walk

* humbly with thy God.' Paffages equal-
ly excellent, and as purely moral as thefe,
abound in the fcriptures of the Old Tefta-

6. The pubhc feftivals of the heathen
gods were feafons of rioting and lewdnefs,
but thofe of the Ifraelites were fcencs of
innocent rejoicing, joined with afl:s of de-
votion, which are by no means incompati-
ble with it ; and every thing relating to
the fervice of the tabernacle and the tem-

p z pie,


pie, was conduced with the greateft
regard to decency; while the utmoft ab-
horrence is exprefled for the horrid cuftoms
of the heathens. * Thou fhalt not/ fays
Mofes, Deut. xii. 29. * inquire after their

* gods, faying how did thofe nations ferve
^ their gods, even fo will I do likewife.
^ Thou flialt not do fo unto the Lord

* thy God. For every abomination to the

* Lord, that he hateth, have they done

* unto their gods. For even their fons and
^ their daughters have they burned In the

* fire to their gods.' And yet this very
thing, which is here mentioned as the
greateft enormity in the worlhip of the
heathens, viz. human facrifices, Voltaire
fays was praftifed in that of the Jews. Is
it poffible for effrontery to go farther than
this? (except indeed his maintaining that
the Jews were canibals, and fed on human
flefh) while without any evidence, but his
own, and contrary to every reprefentatioa
of the fafts by heathen writers themfelves,
he fpeaks of the heathen feftivals as mere
feafons of perfedly innocent feftivity. But,



juftly or unjuftly, every thing not Jewifh
muft be harmlefs, and their rehgion muft
be, as he calls it, a detejlahk fuperjlition,

7. While the religion of the Hebrews
was free from every ftain of impurity, it
contained nothing of unneceflary auflerity.
It had no painful rite, except that of cir-
cumcifion, which being performed on chil-
dren of eight days old, who can have no
apprehenfion of the thing before hand, and
whofe wounds foon heal, is a very trifling
inconvenience. The Hebrews had only
one faft, and that of no more than a fingle
day in the year, but three feftivals of fome

In the principal of the heathen fefti-
vals there was fir ft a folemn mourning, all
the people performing whatever was cuf-
tomary at funerals, or in feafons of great
calamity. They tore their hair, ihaved
their heads, and mangled their flefh. But
the Ifraelites w^ere exprefsly forbidden to
do any of thofe things, Deut. xiv, i . * Ye
* are the children of the Lord your God,
^ Ye Ihall not cut yourfelves, nor make any

^ baldnefs


* baldnefs between your eyes for the dead,

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Online LibraryJoseph PriestleyDiscourses relating to the evidences of revealed religion : delivered in the church of the Universalists at Philadelphia, 1796, and published at the request of many of the hearers → online text (page 7 of 20)