« PreviousContinue »
cular people for a certain time, and were intended to be afterwards set aside by the more general precepts of the Christian Faith, which were to be made known to mankind when the proper time, foretold by the Prophets, should arrive.
We must also consider, that in looking into any other ancient book we of course expect to find words of doubtful meaning, from which a work of the present day would be free; but that if through the help of others we learn as much respecting its author, and the time and country where it was written, as to be capable of understanding a good part of it, and see plainly the general design and conclusion to which it leads, we give complete credit to the book for its whole contents, and presume, that though our want of learning prevents us from making out all its meaning, those parts which appear to us so difficult, may be capable of the most satisfactory explanations, such as have been actually given to them by the learned.
4thly, The most inconceivable circumstance told in the Bible, is the direct communication of the Almighty with his people, which of necessity being wholly contrary to our experience, cannot be understood by any person who does not reflect on the times when these extraordinary events took place. Yet by no other means was it possible to give the knowledge of God to a race of men who are represented to have been absolutely ignorant of all true Religion, at the time the Creator was pleased to make them this benevolent gift of Divine wisdom.
The whole world was become corrupt; how then was it possible for mankind to be recalled to their duty, but by the supernatural voice of God himself? How were they to be convinced of God's existence and authority, but by some conspicuous proofs of them? For this purpose we read that many holy men were admitted to a personal communication with the Supreme Being;-that his heavenly Angels bore his commands to Adam, to Abraham, to Jacob, to Moses, and others upon earth, to whom he gave extraordinary powers of making known his will. For this purpose it is perfectly according to reason, though not according to our experience, that he should condescend to give a set of Laws to his chosen people. The Ten Commandments, as we now have them, being actually delivered to Moses, and written by the hand of God himself!
To preserve that people from falling once more into error, and the worship of stocks and stones, as they did before, it is perfectly agreeable to our notions of Divine Wisdom, that God should instruct Moses to compose a form of government which might secure among them the Divine Inowledge thus supplied.
These Laws, contained in the Book of Leviticus, may now appear very burthensome, directing many duties seemingly below the dignity of Religion, and placing unnecessary restraints on the people. But we must remember that their corruptness called loudly for restraint. That to an ignorant people outward ceremonies of Religion were absolutely necessary to preserve it at all, and that many of these
were conformable to the customs still existing among the nations of the East, as we ourselves have witnessed.
It is perfectly easy to our understandings, that God should encourage them to a strict performance of their duty, by giving them his miraculous support in their struggles with other nations who had incurred his heavy displeasure by their distinguished wickedness,→ and that he should promise them their lands as a reward for their obedience. And it is likewise perfectly easy to be understood, that in those times, when example was his direct object in choosing them out from the rest of mankind, that he should punish with extraordinary severity the disobedience of those to whom he gave such great benefits.
Unless we constantly keep in mind the foregoing considerations, it will appear to us in these days most strange that the Almighty should at once devote thousands to destruction, together with their infant families. That fire from Heaven should descend, and consume them; that the Earth should swallow them up in an instant, as à terrible example to the survivors, for crimes not greater than seem to go unpunished in this world now a days.
Upon a hasty view of the Sacred History, it might appear like injustice to other nations, to select and foster one particular people under the Divine protection, whose History shews them to have been so profligate, so obstinate, and so ungrateful. But when we look upon it as the means of enlightening the whole world, that, as the Scripture expresses it, they might be a leaven to leaven the whole Iump ;' ;'* that they were a people chosen, not so much perhaps for their superiority, but as a beacon set on a hill to be a warning to the other nations of the Earth; we see nothing in it but a scheme of the wisest and most benevolent and prudent foresight, and such as the History of the World afterwards informs us to have brought about the gracious intentions of the Almighty.
In these days it may seem unaccountable that ancient men should have received the spirit of prophecy; that is, be empowered to foretell what would happen hereafter;-that some of them, for their superior goodness, were not permitted to die like other men, but were taken up to Heaven as a reward for their eminent services ;that we should read of these Prophets delivering the commands of God in the courts of Princes, in the midst of armies, boldly denouncing Divine vengeance upon those who refused their advice, or denied their holy calling; and these threatenings inimediately followed by supernatural proofs of the high authority with which they spoke. But when we compare their declarations with the events which followed exactly as they had foretold,-when the coming of Christ, which these ancient Prophets continued to foretell through a long course of years, completed in every particular the declarations which they had made so many hundred years before;-instead of considering these
* Matthew, chap. iii, v. 33.,
things as incredible, although totally contrary to any thing we have seen or known, we remain convinced that these holy men of old were indeed moved by the Spirit of God; we expect with confidence the completion of all which yet remains to be accomplished, and are struck with admiration at these undoubted proofs of the Divine truth of the Bible.
From a careful examination of the Old Testament you will thus receive a simple account of the Creation and early History of the World. You will now perceive clearly the grand scheme of benevolence which induced the Almighty to select a chosen people to receive his immediate communications. You will behold with awe and reverence the terrible examples which were made to deter the rest of mankind from disobedience, by the punishment of their rebellion and impiety. You will read the history of that extraordinary nation as a most curious account of those times which are represented to us by no other means of information. You will examine with earnest care those remarkable prophecies which are there treasured up. You will compare them with the events which were afterwards brought to pass. You will look upon these undoubted evidences with increasing admiration, wonder, and conviction; and you will assuredly conclude with this reflection, that the Bible is the most valuable gift that former ages have bequeathed to mankind! EDITOR.Lg
A FEW MINUTES' CONVERSATION WITH AN UNBEeliever.
To the Editor.
Returning from my parish Church on Christmas-Day last, I fell in with an acquaintance, whom I knew to entertain what are called free thoughts on the subject of Revelation. Allow me to send you, as a slight fragment, the following report of our conversation. I. B. S.
I always pity you, Alciphron, and particularly at the present season. The air of cheerfulness which so generally prevails, and makes even winter smile, must fill you with melancholy, when it reminds you of the errors of your fellow-creatures. The village steeple, which from time immemorial has been accustomed to proclaim the message of glad tidings, must appear to you to usher in the reign of superstition: since bells repeat what the hearers think. No sight is more welcome to my eye than that of those knots of country people, as they wind among the hills which intercept the spire from our view, returning in family groupes from the church where their fathers and forefathers have been long used to celebrate the assurance of God's good will towards men. It brings a thousand delightful associations to my mind. You, the mean while, must be inwardly lamenting such idle commemoration of the origin of their bondage and their error. To-day, too, the sun itself re-appearing after a
season of unusual gloominess and severity, assorts with the impressions on my mind. The clouds and darkness which had long shrouded the throne of God, seem suddenly dispersed; the scene is lighted up and brightens but yet it is the sun-shine of winter still. For you, and such as you, who close your eyes against the light, and too many others who hate the light because their deeds are evil, spread a gloom over the distance, and like the patches of snow which lie unmelted on the hills, remind us that it is a wintry world after all.
You must at least thank me, he replied, for supplying shade to your picture, which would otherwise, like many other creations of the fancy, be too bright to be interesting.
There is no fear, said I, of want of shade in any picture of religion in these days, when so many designing men are busily employed in dispelling every ray of remaining light from the minds of their countrymen, and every gleam of comfort together with it. But I suppose that these efforts, which most of us are witnessing with alarm, or at least with horror, are a matter of satisfaction and congratulation to you. You seem to foresee the triumph of your principles.
By no means, answered Alciphron, I feel none of the gratification which you imagine. I have no objection to keep clear myself from the trammels of your uncompromising faith: but I agree with Voltaire, who found it dangerous to unsettle the minds of the common people. Revelation is an excellent invention of kings and priests to keep the lower ranks in order, and as such I esteem it, and am only sorry that they have got a glimpse of the truth too soon. You have never known me disseminate my opinions in the vulgar manner with which you have been lately disgusted. But there is no reason why I should blind myself, though I may see an advantage in the blindness of others. And as you have introduced the subject, excuse my won dering that you should still maintain a belief so irksome, and at the same time so without foundation, that the weakness of its support bids fair to become evident, ere long, to the lowest classes.
If the uneducated, said I, as you insinuate, are the most likely to be deceived by their priests and rulers, so are they likewise a more easy prey to the designs of artful demagogues, who are aware that religion is the strongest barrier against wickedness and disloyalty, Indeed the late attacks upon religion, beyond all others, are of a nature only to take effect upon those who are either too idle or too ignorant to inquire. They are addressed to such, and they only prevail with such. As for me, I trust that my path is taken, my course decided. I would not disbelieve if I could; and I could not if I would.
You have dropped the secret unawares, he replied, you would not disbelieve if you could. You dare not reject a system which seems necessary to you, because you imbibed it in your infancy, and it has grown up with you. People like to be deceived, and so they persevere in error till they think the error true: for arguments, like your Christmas bells, often reflect the thoughts of the hearer. And yet I am at a loss to understand how it is, that you would not disbelieve if
you could. Do you find it so agreeable to lead a life of penance and mortification, and to be tortured with the dread of eternal punishment? There are few of us who have not great reason to thank those bold men, who have eased us of the heavy burthen of superstition. "Volney and Condorcet, Godwin and Paine, are justly entitled to the universal gratitude and applause of the human race. They have attacked error in its strongest holds: they have pursued it with a powerful and discriminating intellect. It has already lost half its force, and the philosophy which is denominated infidel, willere long chase it out of existence.'*
You too, I replied, have dropped a secret unawares, the secret of your gratitude. Many, no doubt, have reason to be against the Bible, because the Bible is against them: and are you sure that THEY are not the party who like to be deceived, and think their wishes true? I hold it better to be wise in time, than to be undeceived when it is too late and therefore I thank God, who has mercifully given me warning of this eternal punishment, and still more, has opened to me the means of escape: so that if Christianity had but the remotest probability, instead of what appears to my mind absolute certainty, in its favour, common prudence would lead me to embrace it.
This it is, said Alciphron warmly, to be the dupe of imposture! How hateful is this priestcraft, which first torments men with groundless fears, and then pretends to relieve them! This is the 6 deep internal wound which superstition has inflicted on the bosom of society. The whole earth has been made the wretched abode of ignorance and misery, and to priests and tyrants these dreadful effects are to be attributed!"
This is the strange cant of the present day, I replied, to refer the miseries of mankind neither to themselves and their own wickedness, nor to the established constitution of nature, but to the very religion which was sent to mitigate them. Do you observe that cottage under the hill by the road side, not a quarter of a mile off? A little smoke is just rising above the trees. There is enough of suffering, and enough of comfort in suffering under that thatched roof, to refute a thousand such assertions as that which you just hazarded. It is inhabited by a poor widow, and her only daughter. The mother is sunk almost to the grave by an incurable complaint, which has kept her for years in a state of constant pain, and sometimes of extreme anguish. Death has long suspended his hand over her, but still 6 delays to strike,' I followed her daughter the other day, who had been collecting a few sticks to make a partial blaze, the only external comfort of which the poor woman is susceptible: and when I had thus found her out by accident, she told me her story. • What my sufferings have been, Sir,' she said, is known only to myself and to God: but I rejoice in them, since I know that he will make alt things work together for good to them that love him. Indeed I feel
* Palmer's Principles of Nature, published by Carlile.