William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

. (page 44 of 169)
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of thousands who never read and cannot
understand the learned books of Christian
apologists, who want, perhaps, words to ex-
puun the ground of their belief, but whose
udth is of adamantine firmness, who hold
the Gospel with a conviction more intimate
and unwavering than mere axgument ever

But I must tear myself from a subject which
opens upon me continually as I proceed.
Imperfect as this discussion is. the conclusion,
I trust, is placed beyond doubt, that Chris-
tianity is true. And, my hearers, if true, it
is the greatest of all truths, deserving and
demanding our reverent attention and fervent
gratitude. This religion must never be con-
rounded with our common blessings. It is a
revelation of pardon which, as sinners, we all

need. Still more, it is a revelation of human
immortality; a doctrine which, however un-
dervalued amidst the bright anticipations of
inexperienced youth, is found to be our
strength and consolation, and the only eftec-
tual spring of persevering and victorious
virtue, when the realities of life have scat-
tered our visionary hopes ; when pain, dis-
appointment, and temptation press upon us ;
when this world's enjovments are found unable
to quench that deep thirst of happiness which
bums in every breast; when fnends whom
we love as our own soiils die ; and our own
graves open before us. To all who hear mc,
and especially to my young hearers, I would
say, let the truth of this religion be the
strongest conviction of your understandings ;
let its motives and precepts sway with an
absolute power your characters and lives.


ROMANS L xS: **! am not ashamed of the Gospel of

Part I.
These words of Paul are worthy of his reso-
lute and disinterested spirit. In uttering them
he was not an echo of the multitude, a servile
repeater of established doctrines. The vast
majority arotmd him were ashamed of Jesus.
The cross was then coupled with infamy.
Christ's name was scorned as a malefactor's,
and to profess his religion was to share his dis-
grace. Since that time what striking changes
have occurred ! The cross now hangs as an
ornament from the neck of beauty. It blazes
on the flags of navies, and the standards of
armies. MiUions bow before it in adoration,
as if it were a shrine of the divinity. Of
course, the temptation to be ashamed of
Jesus is very much diminished. Still it is
not wholly removed. Much of the homage
DOW paid to Christianity is outward, political,
worldly, and paid to its corruptions much
more than to its pure and lofty spirit; and
accordingly its conscientious and intrepid
friends roust not think it a strange thing to
be encountered vrith occasional coldness or
reproach. "We may still be tempted to be
asnamed of our religion, by being thrown
among sceptics who deny and deride it We
may l^ tempted to be asnamed of the simple
and rational doctrines of Christ, by being
brought into connection with narrow zealots,
who enforce their dark and perhaps degrading
peculiarities as essential to salvation. We
may be tempted to be ashamed of his pure,
meek, and disinterested precepts, by being

thrown among the licentious, self-seeking,
and vindictive. Against these perils we should
all go armed. To be loyal to truth and con-
science under such trials is one of the signal
proofs of virtue. No man deserves the name
of Christian but he who adheres to his prin-
ciples amidst the unbelieving, the intolerant,
and the depraved.

*' I am not ashamed of the Gospel of
Christ." So said PauL So would I say.
Would to God that I could catch the spirit
as well as the language of the Apostle, and
bear my testimony to Christianity with the
same heroic resolution ! Do any ask why I
join in this attestation to the Gospel ? Some
of my reasons I propose now to set before
you ; and, in doing so, I ask the privilege of
speaking, as the Apostle has done, in the
first person ; of speaking in my own name,
and of laying open my own mind in the most
direct language. There are cases in which
the ends of public discourse may be best
answered by the frank expression of indi-
vidual feeling; and this mode of address,
when adopted with such views, ought not to
be set down to the account of egotism.

I proceed to state the reasons why I am not
ashamed of the gospel of Christ ; and I begin
with one so important that it will occupy the
present discourse.

I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ,
because it is irue. This is my first reason.
The religion is true, and no consideration
but this could induce me to defend it. I
adopt it, not because it is popular, for false
and ruinous systems have enjoyed equal

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fepulAhon ; nor because it is thought to up-
hold the order of society, for I believe that
nothing but truth can be permanently use-
ful. It is true; and I say this not lightly,
but after deliberate examination. I am not
repealing the accents of the nursery. I do
not affirm the truth of Christianity because
I was so taught before I could inquire, or
because I was brought up in a community
pledged to this belief. It is not unlikely that
my faith and zeal will be traced by some to
these sources; and believing such imputa-
tions to be groundless, fidelity to the cause of
truth binds me to repel them. The circum-
stance of having been born and educated
under Christianity, so far from disposing me
\o imphcit faith, has often been to me the
occision of serious distrust of our religion.
On observing how common it is for men of
all countries and names, whether Christians,
Jews, or Mahometans, to receive the religion
of their fathers, I have again and again asked
myself whether I too was not a slave, whether
I too was not bhndly walking in the path of
tradition, and jdelding myself as passively as
others to an hereditary faith. I distrust and
fear the power of numbers and of general
opinion over my judgment ; and few things
incite me more to repel a doctrine than in-
tolerant attempts to force it on my under-
standing. Perhaps my CTiristian education
and connections have inclined me to scepti-
cism, rather than bowed my mind to autho-

It may still be said that the pride and pre-
judices and motives of interest which belong
to my profession as a Christian minister
throw a suspiciousness over my reasoning
and judgment on the present subject. I
reply, that to myself I seem as free from
biases of this kind as the most indifferent
person. I have no priestly prepossessions.
I know and acknowledge the corruptions and
perversions of the ministerial office from
the earliest age of the church. I reprobate
the tjrranny which it exercises so often over
the human mind. I recognize no peculiar
banctity in those who sustain it. f think,
then, that I come to the examination of
Christianity with as few blinding partialities
as any man. I indeed claim no exemption
froni error; I ask no implicit faith in my
conclusions; I care not how jealously and
thoroughly my arguments are sifted. I only
ask that I may not be prejudged as a servile
or interested partis.in of Christianity. * I ask
that I may be heard as a friend of truth,
desirous to aid my fellow-creatures in deter-
mining a quesrion of great and universal
concern. I appear as the advocate of Chris-
tianity solely because it approves itself to my
calmest reason as a revelation from God, and
as the purest, brightest light which He has


shed on the human mind. I disclaim aU
other motiv^. No poUcy, no vassalage to
opmion, no dread of reproach even from the
good, no pnvate interest, no desire to uphold
a useful superstition, nothing, in short, but a
deliberate conviction of the truth of Chris-
tianity, induces me to appear in iu ranks. I
should be ashamed of it, did I not believe it

In discussing this subject, I shall express
my convictions strongly ; I shaU spei of
infidelity as a gross and perilous error. But
m so doing, I beg not to be underetood as
passing sentence on the character of indi-
vidual unbelievers. 1 shall show that the
Christian religion is true, is from God ; but I
do not therefore conclude that aU who reject
It are the enemies of God, and are to be
loaded with reproach. I would uphold the
truth without ministering to uncharitableness.
Ifie cnramality. the damnable guilt of un-
bcLef in all imaginable circumstances, is a
position which I think untenable ; and per-
suaded as I am that it prejudices the cause of
Chnsiianity, by creating an antipathy between
its friends and opposers which injures both,
and drives tlie latter into more determined
hostility to the truth, I think it worthy of a
brief consideration in this stage of the dis-

I lay it down as a principle that unbelief,
considered in itself, has no moral quality, is
neither a virtue nor a vice, but must receive
Its character, whether good or bod, from the
dispositions or motives which produce or per-
vade it. Mere acts of the understanding are
neither right nor wrong. When I speak of
faith as a holy or virtuous principle, I extend
the term beyond its primitive meaning, and
include in it not merely the assent of the in-
tellect, but the disposition or temper by which
this assent is determined, and which it is
suited to confirm ; and I attach as broad a
signification to unbelief, when I pronounce it
a crime. The truth is that the human mind,
though divided by our philosophy into many
distinct capacities, seldom or never exerts
them separately, but generally blends them
m one act. Thus, in fonning a judgment, it
exerts the will and affections, or the moral
principles of our nature, as really as the power
of thought Mens passions and interests
mix with, and are expressed in, the decisions
of the intellect. In the Scriptures, which use
language freely, and not with philosophical
strictness, faith and unbelief are mental acts
of this complex character, or joint products
of the understanding and heart; and on
this account alone they are objects of ap-
probation or reproof. In these views, I
presume, reflecting Christians of every name
According to these views, opinions cannot

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ose wno
earts am*

lief; ana


be laid down ai5 unerring and immutable strongest presumption against the upright-
signs of virtue and vice. The very same ness and the love of truth of those who
opinion may be virtuous in one man and rejected him. He knew, too, the hearts an'*
vicious in another, supposing it, as is very lives of those who surrounded hinx, jh ~^
possible, to have originated in different states distinctly in their envy, ambition, world
of mind. For example, if through envy and sensuality, the springs of their luibelief ; i
malignity I sliould rashly seize on the slightest accordingly he pronounced it a crime. Since
proofs of guilt in my neighbour, my judg- that period, what changes have taken place I-
ment of his criminality would be momlly Jesus Christ has left the world. His miracles
wrong. Let another man arrive at the same are events of a remote age, and the proofs of
conclusion in consequence of impartial in- them, though abundant, are to many perfectly
quiry and love of truth, and his decision unknown; and, what is incomparably more
would be morally right. Still more, accord- important, his religion has undergone corrup-
ing to these views it is possible for the belief tion, adulteration, disastrous change, and its
of Christianity to be as criminal as unbelief, likeness to its Founder is in no small d^ree
Undoubtedly the reception of a system so effaced. The clear, consistent, quickening
pure in spirit and tendency as the Gospel is truth, which came from the lips of Jesus, has
to be regarded in general as a favourable been exchanged for a hoarse jargon and vain
sign. But let a man adopt this religion be- babblings. The stream, so pure at the foun-
cause it will serve his interest and popularity ; tain, has been polluted and poisoned through
let him shut his mind against objections to it, its whole course. Not only has Christianity
lest they should shake his faith in a gainful been overwhelmed by absurdities, but l^
system; let him tamper with his intellect, impious doctrines, which have made the
ijid for base and selfish ends exhaust its Universal Father, now a weak and vain
strength in defence of the prevalent faith, and despot to be propitiated by forms and
he is just as criminal in believing as another flatteries, and now an almighty torturer fore-
would be in rejecting Christianity under the ordaining multitudes of his creatiu-es to guilt,
same bad impulses. Our religion is at this and then glorifying his justice by their ever- *
moment adopted and passionately defended lasting woe. Wien I think what Christianity
by vast multitudes, on the ground of the very has become in the hands of politicians and
same pride, worldliness. love of popularity, priests, how it has been shaped into a weapoq
and blind devotion to hereditary prejudices of power, how it has crushed the human soul
which led the Jews and Heathens to reject it for ages, how it has struck the intellect with
in the primitive age; and the faith of the palsy and haunted the imagination with
first is as wanting in virtue as was the in- superstitious phantoms, how it has broken
fidelity of the last. whole nations to the yoke, and frowned on
To judge of the character of faith and every free thought— when I think how, under
unbelief, we must examine the times and the almost every form of this religion, its ministers
circumstances in which they exist. At the have taken it into their own keeping, have
first preaching of the Gospel, to believe on hewn and compressed it into the shape of
Christwasastrongproof of an upright mind; rigid creeds, and have then pursued by
to enhst among his followers, was to forsake menaces of everlasting woe whoever should
ease, honour, and worldly success ; to confess question the divinity of these works of their
him was an act of signal loyalty to truth, hands — when I consider, in a word, how,
virtue, and God. To believe in Christ at the under such influences, Christianity has been
present moment has no such significance, and still is exhibited, in fonns which shock
To confess him argues no moral coiuage. It alike the reason, conscience, and heart. I feel
may even betray a servility and woridliness deeply, painfully, what a different system it
of mind. These remarks apply in their spirit is from that which Jesus taught, and I dare
to unbelief. At different periods, and in not apply to unbelief the terms of condemna-
diiferent conditions of society, unbelief may tion which belonged to the infiddity of the
express very different states of mind. Before primitive age.

we pronounce it a crime and doom it to Perhaps I ought to go farther. Perhaps I

perdidon. we ought to know the circum- ought to say that to reject Christianity under

stances under which it has sprang up, and to some of its corruptions is rather a virtoe

inquire with candour whether th^ afford no than a crime. At the present moment, X

palliation or defence. When Jesus Christ would as^ whether it is a vice to doubt tjbe

was on earth, when his miracles were wrought trath of Christianity as it is manifested, in

before men's eyes, when his voice sounded in Spain and Portugal. When a patriot in tbo^

their ears, when not a shade of doubt could benighted, countries, who knows Christianitf

be thrown over the reality of his supernatural only as a bulwark of despotism, as a reartf

works, and not a human corruption had of inquisitions, as a stem gaoler immuibij;

mingled with his doctrine, there was the wretched women in the convent, as an exectt-

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fjoner stained and reeking with the blood
'of the friends of freedom; I say, when the
patrkU, who sees in our religion the instru-
ment of these crimes and woes, believes and
a/firms that it is not from God, are we
authoriaed to chaige his unbelief on dis-
honesty and corruption of mind, and to
brand him as a culprit ? May it not be that
the spirit of Christianity in his heart em-
boldens him to protest with his lips against
what bears the name ? And if he thus protest,
through a deep sympathy with the oppression
and ftufierings of his race, is he not nearer
the kingdom of God than the priest and in-
quisitor who boastingly and exclusively assume
the Christian name? Jesus Christ has told
us that *' this is the condemnation" of the
onbeheving, "that they love darkness rather
than light ; " and who does not see that this
ground of condemnation is removed just in
proportion as the light is quenched, or Chris-
tian truth is buried in darkness and debasing

I know I shall be told that a man in the
circumstances now supposed would still be
culpable for his unbelief, because the Scrip-
tures are within his reach, and these are
sufficient to guide him to the true doctrines
of Christ. But in the countries of wliich I
have spoken, the Scriptures are not common ;
and if they were, I apprehend that we should
Cask human strength too severely, in re-
quiring it, under every possible disadvantage,
to gam the truth from this soiuce alone.
A man, bom and brought up in the thickest
darkness, and amidst the grossest corruptions
of Christianity, accustomed to hear the Scrip-
tures disparaged, accustomed to connect
falae ideas with their principal terms, and
wanting our most common helps of criticism,
t^x\ hardly be expected to detach from the
mass of error which bears the name of the
Gospel, the simple principles of the primitive
faith. Let us not exact too much of our
fellow-creaCurcs. In our sseal for Christianity
let us not focget its spirit of equity and mercy.
— Jn these remarks 1 have taken an extreme
case. I have supposed a man subjected to
the greatest disadvantages in regard to the
knowledge of Christianity. But obstacles
less serious may exculpate the unbeliever.
In truth, none of us can draw the line which
separates between innocence and guilt in
this particular. To measure the responsi*
IMhty of a man who doubts or denies Chris-
tianity, we must know the history of his
mind, Us capacity of judgment, the early
tnfiuencei and i>re}udices to which he was
exposed, the forms under which the religion
and its proofs first fixed bis thoughts, and
the opportunities since enjoyed of eradicating
errors which struck root before the power of
trying them was unfolded. We are not his

judges. At another and an unerring trihimal
he must give account.

I cannot, then, join in the common cry
against infidelity as the sure mark of a
corrupt mind. That unbelief often has its
origin in evil dispositions I cannot doubt.
The character of the unbeliever often forces
us to acknowledge that he rejects Christianity
to escape its rebukes ; that its purity is its
chief offence ; that he seeks infidelity as a
refuge from fear and virtuous restraint. But
to impute these unholy motives to a man of
pure life is to judge rashly, and it may he
unrighteously. I cannot look upon unbelief
as essendally and unfailingly a crime. But
I do look upon it as among the greatest of
calamides. It is the loss of the chief aid of
virtue, of the mightiest power over tempta-
tion, of the most quickening knowledge of
God, of the only unfailing light, of the only
sure hope. The unbeliever would gain un-
speakably by parting with every possession
for the truth which he doubts or rejects. And
how shall we win him to the faith ? Not by
reproach, by scorn, by tones of superiority;
but by paying due respect to his uiulerstand-
ing, his virtues, and his right of private judg-
ment; by setting before him Christianity in
its simple majesty, its reasonableness, and
wonderful adaptation to the wants of our
spiritual nature; by exhibiting its proofs with-
out exaggeration, yet in their full strength:
and. ^ove all, by showing in our own cha-
racters and lives that there is in Christianity a
power to purify, elevate, and console, whif^h
can be found in no human teaching. These
are the true instruments of conversion. The
ignorant and superstitious may indeed be
driven into a religion by menace and reproach ;
but the reflecting unbeliever cannot but dis-
trust a cause which admits such weapons.
He must be reasoned with as a man, an
equal, and a brother. Perhaps we may si-
lence him for a time by spreading through
the community a fanatical excitement and a
persecuting hatred of infidelity. But, as by
such processes Christianity would bo made to
take a more imlovely and irrational form, its
secret foes would be multiplied ; its brightest
evidence would be dimmed, its foundation
sapped, its energy impaired; and whene\er
the time should arrive for throwing off the
mask (and that time would come), we should
learn that in the very ranks of its nominal
disciples there had been trained a host of
foes, who would bum to prostrate the into-
lerant faith which had so long sealed their
lips, and trampled on the rights and freedom
of the human mind.

According to these views, I do not con-
demn the unbeliever, unless he bear Axitness
against himself by an immoral and irreligious
life. It is not given me to search his heart.

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But this power is given to himself, and. as a dation, which are framed to uphold the \mk*
friend. I call upon him to exert it; I ask him gined weakness of Christian truth,
to look honestly into his own mind, to ques- I now come to the great object of this dis-
tion his past life, and to pronounce impartial course — an exhibition of the proofs of Chris-
sentence on the causes of his unbelief. Let tianity; and I begin with a topic which is
bim ask himself whether he has inquired into needed to prepare some, if not many, to
the principles and proofs of Christianity de- estimate these proofs fairly, and according to
liberatdy and in the love of truth ; whether their true weight. I begin with the position,
the desire to discover and fulfil his duties to That there is nothing in the general idea of
God and his fellow-creatures has governed Revelation at which Reason ought to take
his examination ; whether he has surrendered offence, nothing inconsistent with any estab-
bimself to no passions or pursuits which lished truth, or with our best views of God
religion and conscience rebuke, and which and Nature. This topic meets a prejudice
bar the mind and sear the heart against the not very rare. I repeat it, then. Revelation is
truth. If, thus self-questioned, his heart nothing incredible, nothing which carries ton-
acquit him, let no man condemn him, and tradiction on its face, nothing at war with any
let him heed no man's condemnation. But great principles of reason or experience. On
if conscience bear witness against him. he hearing of God's teaching us by some other
has cause to suspect and dread his unbelief, means than the fixed order of nature, we
He has reason to fear that it is the fruit of ought not to be surprised, nor ought the sug-
a depraved mind, and that it will ripen gestion to awaken resistance in our minds,
and confirm the depravity from which it Revelation is not at war with nature. From
^rang. the necessity of the case, the earliest instruc-

I know that there are those who will con- tion must have come to human beings from
strue what they will call my lenity towards this source. If our race had a beginning (and
unbelief into treachery towards Christianity, nothing but the insanity of Atheism can doubt
There are those who think that unless scepti- this), then its first members, created as they
cism be ranked among the worst crimes, and were without human parentage, and having
the infidel be marked out for abhorrence and no resource in the experience of fellow-crea-
dread, the multitude of men will lose their tures who had preceded them, required an
hold on the Gospel. An opinion more dis- immediate teachmg from their Creator ; they
creditable to Christianity cannot easily be would have perished without it. Revelation was
advanced by its friends. It virtually admits the very commencement of human history,
that the proofs of our religion, unless exam- the foundation of all later knowledge and
ined under the influence of terror, cannot improvement. It was an essential part of
work conviction ; that the Gospel cannot be the course of Providence, and must not then
left, like other subjects, to the calm and un- be regarded as a discord in God's general
biassed judgment of mankind. It discovers S3rstem.

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 44 of 169)