Page images

their Christian liberty. Every man, indeed, who has much reputation to preserve, as a divine and a scholar, finds it necessary to be cautious in stating opinions to be adopted by others, which cannot be defended by the soundest expositions of scripture, and the fairest deductions of enlightened reason. In the prevalence of this disposition in the community to investigate the grounds of the principal systems of theology, the friends of Christianity have much cause for congratulation. It is an obvious principle of our nature, that the sentiments we profess can have no good practical effect, unless we have a rational and impressive conviction of their justness and their value; such a conviction as can result only from a careful and industrious research into the evidences upon which they are founded, and not from the confidence we repose in the intelligence and piety of any mere human being from whom we have received them. It is really inconceivable, that any one, who feels the importance of religious truth, who would wish to see it triumphant, and would witness, with joy, its purifying influence in the lives of men, should feel any reluctance to encourage that freedom of examination, that personal application to scripture in the full exercise of the strongest energies of mind, by which alone it is most likely to be obtained.

It is true, there have been but few sectarians among Protestants, who have not professed their willingness to yield to others those rights of conscience which they have claimed as sacred to themselves, and which they have exercised in their fullest extent. But, unfortunately, this concession has been but little more than profession. They have generally discarded from their fellowship all who have not subscribed to their views of the doctrines of the bible, charging them with insincerity, moral corruption, and enmity to the truth. With peculiar inconsistency, they have recognized the right of Christians to think and judge for themselves, and yet have insisted that a departure from established theories of human origin was ground sufficient

to deny them the Christian name, exclude them from the ordinances of the gospel and the prospects of immortality. No one will pronounce this an exaggerated representation, who has not been a stranger to the theological controversies of this country. The sect denominated Orthodox, have boldly maintained, that Unitarians were not the disciples of Jesus Christ; that they had no reason to apply to themselves the promises of the gospel, and no encouragement to raise their hopes from earth to heaven. Not, however, because they were less blameless in their lives than their orthodox brethren; or because they have done less for the defence of Christianity against the attacks of infidels; or because they have contributed less to increase the general stock of human knowledge, and to the advancement of the world in civilization, in virtue, and happiness; but because they have ventured to bring their reason and their learning to the study of the scriptures, and have attempted, in imitation of the first reformers, to separate the primitive faith from the inventions of men. The orthodox of New-England, in their turn, have been condemned by the Calvinists of the south; accused of substituting a new religion for that originally delivered to the saints. Is this the liberty of Protestants, for the enjoyment of which they separated from the Catholic Church? Was it for this, that the fathers of the Reformation, at the hazard of their lives, exposed the extravagant errours and shameless vices of the popish clergy? Was it only that one party among themselves might enslave the consciences of another, that they resisted the arrogant and impious pretensions of the Roman Hierarchy to the divine right of dictating to their deluded followers the articles of their faith? If so, then have they laboured to no purpose-then has the Reformation effected no desirable change in the condition of mankind. If individual Christians are not competent to ascertain the essential doctrines of Revelation; if an appeal must be made to any human tribunal, to know what must be believed to inherit eternal life, that appeal ought cer

tainly to be made to the Pope, and his councils of assembled Bishops, who, without dispute, have the strongest claims to infallibility. But there is reason to believe that the mild spirit of Christianity has begun to lessen the rigour of sectarian bigotry, and soften the asperity of religious discussions. The experience of three hundred years of bitter contentions and mutual recriminations among Protestant parties, has begun to convince them of the folly of expecting uniformity of opinion, and the criminality of making it a condition of the exercise of charity. Candid inquirers are every day multiplying among us, "calling no man master on earth," but ready to avail themselves of the labours of wisdom and experience to guide them in the study of the sacred oracles. Such a state of feeling in the community, seems to require, that a denomination of Christians, whose distinguishing views of religion have been so long the theme of animadversion, as have been those of Unitarians, should be able to refer those who would examine them, to authors, where they may be found, stated with clearness, and defended with candour. To this denomination belong the publishers of the following Sermons, and with these impressions they present them to the publick. It is not because the opinions they have embraced have not been ably explained and supported by numerous writers of profound erudition and exalted piety, that they deem this publication necessary. If the correctness of religious tenets could be tested by the talents, the learning, or the moral worth of those who have maintained them, the faith of Unitarians might safely rest on such authorities as Locke, and Newton, and Clark, and Lardner, and Emlyn, and Priestly, and Price. In the works of these distinguished men, and of many others, may be found a vindication of the sentiments they profess. But these are not within the reach of the great body of readers, nor ar they all adapted to such capacities. The publishers are not aware, that the Christian community are possessed of a book, which exhibits a connected view of their doctrines

in the form of Sermons, (and these are most likely to be read by persons of common attainments,) while Calvinists have been careful to fill the world with sectarian books of every description, from the most learned, down to the child's primer. The discourses in this volume, with the exception of one or two, were delivered by the author to his own people within the last two years, and were not written in the expectation that they would be given to the world. He has yielded his opinion of the expediency of the publication to the solicitations of his friends. They form a regular series upon those prominent doctrines of Christianity which now divide the two principal classes, cal Orthodox or Calvinistick, and Liberal or Unitarian. In these discourses is presented, in connected order, a fair statement of the doctrines of Calvinism, as laid down by the most approved writers; the leading objections to which those doctrines are liable, are brought into view, together with the opinions which liberal Christians oppose to them; and all this is done in a style and manner easy to be comprehended by ordinary understandings. If the reader should think them not entitled to the credit, either of novelty of arrangement, or originality of argument, he is reminded, that they were not composed to enlighten the learned, but to instruct a promiscuous assembly. He will find, however, what is, perhaps, of more consequence, the great grounds of difference between these contending parties, stated with distinctness, and treated with liberality.

To Christians of all denominations, the subjects discussed in these Sermons are deeply interesting. It is of unspeakable importance to all who expect salvation upon the terms of the gospel to obtain correct views of the divine character and attributes; of the character of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and the Saviour of the world—just apprehensions of the nature of that mediation by which man is redeemed from moral death, and of the duties and accountability of rational beings. Such considerations, it is believed, will render these Sermons acceptable and useful.

But there is a further one, which entitles them to respectful attention. This arises from the age, the experience, and the character of their author. Doctor Bancroft was inducted into the Pastoral office in Worcester on the first day of February, 1786. His society had found it necessary to separate from the first parish in this town, in consequence of a difference on doctrinal points. Calvinists and Arminians were the prominent opposing parties of that day, to the latter of which the new society were attached. And so powerful were the former throughout the country, and so exclusive in their intercourse in this vicinity, that for many years he found few neighbouring clergymen disposed to reciprocate ministerial labours, or willing to recognize his official character. For a long time he was excluded from the associations of ministers in this county, disowned as a minister, and reviled as a heretick. Under such discouragements, did Dr. Bancroft commence the duties of his high vocation. For thirty-six years he has continued to discharge the duties of his station with a consistency of character which none have surpassed, and a steadiness of purpose from which nothing could divert him; and it is a fact well known to the writer of these introductory pages, that the most zealous Calvinists have yielded him the praise of an irreproachable life, and of being an honourable though formidable opponent.

After a critical and laborious review of his early opinions, at a period of life when nothing but the soberness of truth can interest the mind, Dr. Bancroft engaged in composing the Sermons contained in this volume. He brought to the work a mind enlarged and invigorated by a long course of study and of practical discipline. They exhibit the views of a Divine who has reflected much and read extensively; and the publishers are confident that, if they fail to convince the reader, they will at least assist him in establishing his faith in the concerns of religion, enlarge his charity to others, and strengthen his habits of piety and


[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »