Page images

Imputations like these, of criminal indifference to all religious opinions, and of fatal error, to the church at large, the benevolent institutions of the age, and the ministers of the gospel themselves, as a body, which he has carried, however he intimates, to a far less extent, and expressed with much greater moderation than he should have felt to be justifiable, had he not been fearful of being misunderstood, are novel topics for such places and occasions, and not a little adapted to excite surprise. Within a recent period, it seems, an essential change has taken place in “ the order of things,” “and at the expense of truth.” - The church of God,” which, “ thirty years ago,” “ aimed at large attainments in grace and knowledge,” has suddenly sunk into “ a strange apathy to the truth,” and passed to such an extreme, “ that nothing seems to satisfy” even “ her good men, short of that spirit of mutual concession, which savours of a criminal indifference to all religious opinions.” In other words, religion itself has declined to such a degree, that even the best portion of the church has not only ceased to aim “ at grace and knowledge,” and become satisfied “with very easy and liberal views,” but has grown restive and unmanageable under any thing better than “a criminal indifference to all religious opinions.” The imputations themselves are formal and explicit, and the parties whom they implicate distinctly defined; not “ the enemies of the cross,” who are addicted to " speculative philosophy” and the arts of an “unhinging subtlety," but " the friends of truth themselves," " the church of God," and those of “ her good men,” who are exhibiting to the age“ a charity so liberal” “and a benevolence so active;"> and if they are founded on adequate grounds; if they are not, indeed, clearly unauthorized and extremely unjust,

[merged small][ocr errors]

the church has, unquestionably, involved herself in a degree of guilt and danger, which not only justifies his sounding this stifled “ note of alarm," but makes it his imperious duty fearlessly to develope the evil in all its extent, and bring forth the “ strong reasons” that demonstrate its existence, in so conclusive a manner, as to preclude all misconception of his meaning and misrepresentation of his designs. Are they then sustained by obvious and adequate evidences, or contradicted by indisputable facts ?

Whether or not any better proofs of the reality, or explanation of the origin of these imputed evils, could be given, it will not be very readily believed that the causes to which he refers them, can have had any agency in calling them into existence. It is not very easy to discover how a liberal charity, an active benevolence, or a quick sensibility, can have given birth to " a criminal indifference to all religious opinions ;" nor how, indeed, such an indifference can possibly consist with this charity and benevolence, the great and almost sole object of which is to influence “religious opinions,” and form and give them efficiency in accordance with truth; for this is, of course, their end in the distribution of the scriptures, the diffusion of tracts, and the support of ministers rightly to divide the word of life, and make it “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” This “ criminal indifference to all religious opinions,” has certainly taken a most extraordinary method of developing itself, if these are the proofs of its existence and modes of its exertion.

But his representations are as difficult to be reconciled with facts at large, as his assumption is that such evil effects

can have sprung from those causes. No fancy can be more utterly aside from the truth, than that the church has undergone any such retrocession in knowledge. The fact is indubitably the extreme reverse, and it is the natural and almost inevitable result of the more propitious circumstances which she has enjoyed of late, than at any former season. A multitude of causes were in vigorous action during a long period preceding the last “ thirty years,” that withdrew the attention of even “ her good men,” in no inconsiderable degree, from the interests of religion, which subsequently have either not existed at all, or exerted only a far inferior influence. The first twelve or fifteen years from 1770, were distracted by perpetual civil contentions and the war of the revolution, which kept the general mind in continual and passionate excitement; while the next eighteen or twenty were marked by scarcely less agitation, from the difficulties of the currency debt and dispersion of the army, resulting from that war, the reconstruction of the government, and the French revolution, that like all other secular events that strike the passions with overpowering interest, greatly interrupted the influence of the gospel, and obstructed the devotion of its ministers, as well as the attention of the public at large, to its interests. Their effects were seen accordingly in a fatal decay in numerous instances, and the impeded progress generally of the churches, an unexampled depression of morals, and a wide and frightful diffusion of open and virulent infidelity. Since that period, however, and especially from the close of the last war, the public mind has been far freer from these all-absorbing excitements, and offered far fewer obstacles to the access of truth ; and it is not to be believed, without the most decisive proofs, that these superior advantages have been utterly lost, and both

the clergy and church relapsed under their influence, into even a worse neglect and ignorance of the gospel than had taken place during those difficult scenes. It is against all probability ; it is equally against all facts, for nothing is more certain or obvious than that these happier circumstances have been felt and improved to at least no slight degree. Their influence is seen in the almost incredible increase that has taken place, and the dissemination of the means of knowledge, the vast multiplication of theological books, the circulation, before utterly unexampled in the world, of periodicals devoted to the interests of religion, and the immense diffusion of useful commentaries on the scriptures. Can any one who looks at these great facts, forming so conspicuous a characteristic of the age, believe that the church at large, has, after all, undergone under their influence such a frightful retrogradation in knowledge, and attachment to the truth? Are none of these learned, eloquent, and popuJar publications read, or read with fit instruction ? Or has the present generation sunk so far below its predecessors in sense, as to peruse this vast multiplicity of works, without deriving from them even that degree of benefit, which their ancestors had the wisdom to educe from their more scanty means ? Can any one who looks at the advances that have been made in the methods and extent of instruction in the collegiate institutions, at the numerous theological seminaries which have been established, and the superior means of preparation for the sacred office which they afford, and especially at the important progress that has been made in biblical learning, believe that, after all, the present genera-" tion of orthodox ministers know less, and care less respecting the truth, than their predecessors? Who were those prodigies of learning, wisdom and faithfulness, whose supe="

rior ministry the church had the happiness “thirty years ago" to enjoy? Who, that have passed from the stage during that period, with perhaps the sole exception of Dwight and Mason, have not left many superiors in knowledge, and equals in fidelity and devotedness? Or what other conclusion can any one form who looks impartially at the more varied and multiplied labours of the ministry at the present day, and the results of their influence in the condition of the church? Are there not as many sermons preached, as many“ discourses” delivered, as much extemporaneous and informal instruction given, as at any former period? Are not the chief doctrines of christianity as frequently made the theme of discussion in the pulpit; as just views entertained and exhibited of the great scheme of redemption; and as correct and effective applications addressed to reason and conscience, of the doctrines and precepts of the gospel ? Is there not as much, and tenfold more scriptural knowledge communicated to the young, through the instrumentality of Bible classes, Sunday schools, and the almost infinite multiplicity of books that have been produced for their instruction? And has not the Most High owned and blessed the labours of these ministers as signally, and crowned them with success by effusions of the Spirit, at least as frequent, as general, and as extraordinary as at any other period? It is certainly not according to the usual course of things, that, under the action of these stupendous aids and excitements to knowledge, the church should only sink into “ignorance” and “apathy;" and if such is indeed the fact, it is indisputably one of the most extraordinary of the wonders of the age.

Some very important changes have certainly taken place in respect to the subjects and methods of discussion in the

« PreviousContinue »