Robert Little (1762-1827) was born in England but immigrated to the United States in 1819. He was the first pastor of First Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. and was instrumental in its formation in 1821. He served in that position until his death.
Religious Liberty and Unitarianism
THE HALL OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Washington City, Sunday, April 28, 1822.
BY ROBERT LITTLE.
In compliance with the solicitations of a considerable number of my auditors, members of congress, and members of the society over which I preside, the following sermon is now submitted to the publick judgment. I am aware that in perusal it will be found to contain less that is deserving of such a distinction, than what the momentary impressions of the hearers might seem to warrant. It appears nevertheless necessary to print it, inasmuch as it has unintentionally given offence to some, whose state of feeling at the time, has, I fear, prevented them from rightly understanding, or distinctly recollecting the rain of reasoning pursued by the preacher. For any errors of composition, I beg that indulgence which the considerate will readily grant to one who is only recovering slowly from a most severe and dangerous sickness, and is still incapable of sustaining much fatigue, particularly that of writing, for which he is almost wholly incompetent. To the same cause must be attributed the omission of some passages in delivery, which are here enclosed in brackets. For the sentiments expressed, I ask nothing but a candid and fair examination: as for the charge of un-seasonableness and impropriety of introducing such topics at the time and place, I have only to remark, that when those of a contrary opinion cease from availing themselves of every opportunity to revile the friends of free inquiry, and to press their own peculiar opinions as indispensably necessary, this complaint will deserve more attention. For myself, I have no desire to preach at any time, or in any place, where the grand topics, Religious Liberty and the Divine Unity, are unwelcome.
If, in the discussion of these subjects, I have deviated from charity or courteousness in any instance, I will, upon conviction, acknowledge and correct my error at the earliest opportunity.
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY AND UNITARIANISM
Acts v. 38, 39. Refrain from these men and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of man, it will come to naught; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it.
Such was the advice of the Jewish Doctor, who was the tutor of Saul of Tarsus. But the history of his pupil’s early life shows that he was very far from adopting the liberal and prudent course of action thus recommended. On the contrary, one of the first views we have of him in the scriptures, is consenting to the death of Stephen, the leader of the glorious army of Christian Martyrs, and holding the raiment of those who were his immediate murderers. At a subsequent period we find him breathing out threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord. Whether Gamaliel had abandoned his liberal sentiments and adopted the system of persecution as better suited to the exigency of Jewish affairs, I know not: but there was certainly something in the rise and progress of Christianity exceedingly calculated to rouse the anger and resentment of those whose education and interests attached them to the existing condition of the nation. A person of obscure and mean parentage, and a native of a part of the country least in repute for anything good and great, had recently appeared among them as a teacher and reformer of Religion. It was well known that he had not received education from the doctors of their law, and he ascribed all his wisdom to direct communications from God. It was certain that he had deeply and attentively studied the Hebrew Scriptures, and that all his instructions were in strict conformity to their spirit and design. His life and manners were blameless, and his preaching singularly powerful and impressive; besides which, he constantly appealed to miraculous works which he performed in proof of his divine mission, and insisted on the obligation of his hearers to believe and to obey him, as the messenger of Heaven.
A marked difference was observed between the manner of his instructions and that of others, for he spoke as one who possessed authority over the consciences of his auditors. Most severely did he reprobate the vices of the age, and particularly those of the religious guides and rulers of the people. He accused them of hypocrisy, selfishness, ignorance of the scriptures, tyranny, cruelty, sensuality, covetousness, ambition, and many other vices. For this general corruption, he denounced the approaching judgments of God upon the nation, and declared that the generation then existing would not be gone off the stage, before Judea was desolated by wars and famine, and Jerusalem trodden down of the gentiles. The common people, for a while, heard him gladly, for they are usually pleased with anything that exposes their superiors to contempt: but when they perceived that he had no design to gratify political feelings, or party spirit; that he had no worldly nor ambitious project in view; that his whole aim was to introduce greater purity and simplicity of morals and religion, and that the blessedness of virtue, and the joys of a future state of being, were the only rewards he held out to his followers; they were easily turn round to the side of their governors, who denounced him as a pestilent fellow, a deceiver, and an enemy to the state.
The public mind being sufficiently exasperated by these charges, the chief priests and rulers felt themselves strong enough to venture to seize on him, and through the forms of law, violently strained to gratify their thirst for vengeance, they procured his crucifixion. Here they supposed the alleged delusion would end, and their own religious authority and usages remain undisturbed. Never, however, were men more deceived in their calculations; for in a few weeks a number of his followers, who had been disconcerted and overwhelmed by the terrible circumstances of his death, re-appeared in public and boldly maintained that he had been crucified and slain by wicked hands, but that God had raised him from the dead. They affirmed that he was made Lord and Christ, and seriously called upon the people to repent of what they had done, and believe in him, that their awful sin in rejecting the Messiah might be blotted out. So strong was the impression of this unexpected appeal, that several thousands of the inhabitants of Jerusalem actually submitted to the call, and became avowedly the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.
These of course were in daily expectation of some awful impending judgment to fall on their unhappy city, who had rejected and crucified the son of God: therefore they were almost constantly together, and continued in prayers and supplications, in acts of worship and benevolence. The apostles, emboldened by this success, and having subsequently confirmed their doctrine by a very remarkable miracle, proceeded still more urgently to press upon the people and the rulers of the Jews, the duty of acknowledging Jesus as their long expected Messiah, and submitting to be governed by his precepts. This not only exasperated the government, but excited serious apprehensions of what would be the result. They therefore put the apostles into custody, and having arraigned them, and attempted to terrify them into silence, “they commanded them not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus.” The reply of Peter and John is remarkable for its intrepidity, unwavering fidelity, and artless piety. “Whether it is right before God, to hearken unto you more than God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” Having obtained personal liberty, we cannot be surprised to read afterwards that with such feelings as they had, “they ceased not to teach and to preach the good news, that Jesus was the Christ.”
The high priest and the Sanhedrim, became greatly alarmed: they saw that if this thing grew much farther, they should be viewed with execration as the murderers of Jesus, and must probably fall a sacrifice to a popular insurrection. They therefore took counsel how they might kill these men; but Gamaliel, one of their number, sagaciously recommended a more cautious and prudent policy. If they proceeded now to extremities, it would be hazarding everything on one cast of the die; time might put a new face upon the affair. Their experience might teach them that no imposition of this sort could be permanent; but if the apostles were right, force, however violent, would not suppress the cause in which they were engaged.
To this moderate counsel they for the present so far agreed as to let off the apostles with a beating, after the Jewish manner of punishing slight offenses against the public peace: and they departed from the Sanhedrim, not cast down and discouraged, but rejoicing that they were counted worthy to bear shame and stripes for the sake of their beloved master.
What was it that rendered the progress of Christianity so much an object of terror to the Jewish rulers, and its suppression so desirable? Christ and his apostles taught nothing injurious to the interests of individuals or society. They did not inculcate revenge, insubordination or licentiousness. On the contrary, they insisted on the necessity of humility, patience, self-denial, and heavenly-mindedness. So far were they from encouraging ambitious and aspiring demagogues to join their ranks, in hope of supplanting the present possessors of power; they denounced all such feelings and hopes, as utterly at variance with the principles of true religion, and subversive of the system they labored to establish. For their grand object was to turn men’s attention to another world, in which they will be rewarded or punished according to their conduct in this. The whole substance of Christianity is the revelation of a future state, and the various moral truths dependent upon it. There was nothing, therefore, in the religion itself, to excite disgust or abhorrence. But the fact was, that a previous system was established by law; the ritual of Moses, enlarged and probably corrupted by the traditions of the elders, combined with various opinions and practices derived from the Chaldean philosophy, with which the Jews had been infected ever since the Babylonian captivity. The temporal interests of the Scribes and Pharisees were inseparably connected with this order of things.
They were the expounders of the law, and religious leaders of the people. The simple truths taught by Jesus and his apostles, in many respects, clashed with the mystical and ceremonial theology supported by these public guides, and the prevalence of the new opinions would unquestionably produce a revolution, unfavorable to their influence over the people, and manifest their ignorance of those spiritual and moral truths which could alone insure human happiness. To uphold the declining credit of their ecclesiastical system, the priest and scribes united all their strength in opposition to the Christian scheme; and from their selfishness and determined bigotry arose that sanguinary contest, which brought at length confusion and ruin upon their unhappy country and themselves.
The history of all national religious establishments is but a repetition of the same intolerance and mischief. Founded in ages of comparative darkness, they have adopted for immutable truths dogmas at which posterity will smile with contempt, or from which they will revolt with disgust. The world moves on; science acquires fresh lights and progresses with increased velocity; every age advances in discoveries of important facts and principles, which in their results change the state and relations of society: but an established religion admits of no improvement; it stands venerable by its antiquity, bearing the deep furrows of age on its front, and having no sympathy or congeniality with the manners and sentiments of an advanced period of the world. It sternly frowns on every effort to understand truth and duty better than our forefathers did. Professor Dugald Stewart has a beautiful passage on this subject. “Were it not,” says he, “for a certain class of learned authors, who from time to time, heave the log into the deep, we should hardly believe that the reason of the species is progressive. In this respect, the religious and academical establishments in some parts of Europe, are not without their use to the historian of the human mind. Immovably moored to the same station by the strength of their cables, and the weight of their anchors, they enable him to measure the rapidity of the current by which the rest of the world are borne along.”
But such stability as admits of no modification or improvement, whether it be in a theological creed, or a political constitution, is inconsistent with human nature, which is manifestly designed for perpetual growth, and advances from age to age to new positions in the moral and intellectual world. Attempts to restrain or limit enquiry within the bounds of ancient prejudices are like binding the sleeping Sampson with green withes; the waking giant will burst the despicable bands, “as a thread of tow is broken when it touches the fire.”
I see before me many amongst whom I esteem it an honor to rank as an advocate, however feeble, of free inquiry in religion, and a rational faith.
On this account we are calumniated as infidels, and denounced as unworthy the Christian name. Is it believed, then, that our religion will not bear examination? Or, that the genuine doctrines of Christ are contrary to reason? Such is not the opinion of Unitarian Christians. We believe the system, as taught by our great Master and his apostles, to be sublimely simple, adapted for general conviction, as it was intended for the universal benefit of mankind. Are we then justly considered the enemies of truth and goodness, because we desire to free this divine religion from the corruptions and superstitions, that have gathered round it in dark and credulous ages? No; let us clear away these parasitical plants, the noble tree will flourish with greater beauty, and bear, as at first, more abundant and richer fruit: let us remove those meretricious ornaments with which bad taste, or bad intention, have ignorantly or impiously clogged the venerable pile; and the sacred temple of Christianity will once more stand “majestic in its own simplicity,” the admiration of ages, and the praise of its Divine Architect.
I purpose in the remainder of this discourse to show,
1. The advantages our system possesses in this country from the absence of a national religion.
2. The impossibility of our opponents overthrowing that cause in which we are embarked.
We have no system of religious doctrine or worship, established by law, and its professors paid by the state for teaching it. The nations of Europe pay yearly many millions to maintain such establishments, and it is contended that the money is well spent; without it, it is said that irreligion and immorality would deluge the nations. Now it is a remarkable fact, that in England, where the greatest existing degree of toleration is maintained contemporaneously with the most expensive religious establishment in the world, the majority of her religious inhabitants refuse to commune with the established church, and although obliged to bear their share of the expense of the national priesthood, prefer to assume an additional burden of supporting a religion of their own choice, and better adapted (as they suppose) to the purposes of that divine institution. On the European continent, where the Catholic establishments prevail, there being less toleration and less of impartial inquiry, the religion of the state has the scarcely disguised contempt of the enlightened part of the community, and its ministers and services are a butt for the sarcastic ridicule of the profane.
Wherefore then serve religious establishments? They are said to strengthen and give stability to the thrones of monarchs; and they provide means of support for the weaker branches of an indigent aristocracy. Thanks be to heaven, that we have here neither a throne to support, nor an aristocracy to provide for. The only purposes required of religion in this free country, are to make her citizens wiser and better, for their own present good, and future salvation. Has the absolute refusal of our legislators to interfere with matters of religion been attended with those demoralizing effects which the advocates for establishments predicted? Let the event show. In no country in the world have religious sects increased more rapidly, nor temples for worship sprung up in greater number, in a given space of time. And, what is of greater importance, they have increased without feuds and violence detrimental to the public peace, and injurious to the cause of liberty. As for those verbal controversies between differing sects, which some affect so much to dislike and condemn, they afford the most harmless and useful exercise for the human mind. They often elicit truth; they illustrate the strength and the weakness of the human understanding; they disperse the phantoms which superstition engendered in the quietness of religious usurpation: like the kindly gales of the rising and falling year, they dispel the dank unwholesome vapors which hover over the enchanted regions of ignorance and credulity.
Besides, if there be any venom in religious controversy, it is neutralized by perfect religious liberty. Whatever may be the confidence of any party, in the truth of its opinions, and the exclusive wisdom of its institutions; it has no power to obtrude or impose them upon others, beyond the influence which rational argument will lend to their cause. Even those who denounce the use of reason as impious, when presuming to judge of the doctrines of revealed religion, are obliged themselves to reason, if they desire to defend or extend their opinions. Everyone is reluctant to take anything upon trust, especially in an affair of the immense importance of that which relates to acceptance with God, and the happiness of a future state of being.
But even if we should be obliged to admit that the perfect religious freedom of this country were accompanied with a blamable indifference to the subject altogether, and perhaps this may be true of many individuals; still we believe it to be more favorable to the ultimate triumphs of truth than a contrary state of things. For he who is indifferent may be more readily swayed by a candid and persuasive representation of the truth, than he who by previous erroneous impressions is strongly prejudiced against it. In fact we only ask for that indifference of mind that may insure an impartial judgment, to render the progress of our sentiments secure. What has produced the indifference complained of? Shall we attribute it to liberty; or rather to the repulsive forms in which religion has been ordinarily presented to view? If, as we have recently been told, the fundamental dogma of the Christian religion is original sin, I am not surprised at the utter indifference of considerate men about the whole matter. The doctrine or original sin is, that all mankind fell by Adam’s first transgression into a state of sin and misery, so that their whole nature is corrupt, nor can they do anything that is not sinful: in consequence of this totally corrupt and depraved state, they are under condemnation from God, and liable to the pains of hell forever.
If this doctrine be true, the less any man thinks about it the better. For as he can do nothing to please God, nor to escape damnation, the natural course for him is to enjoy what little he can of this present life, and resign himself to his inevitable fate. But the truth is, no wise man believes anything of the kind; and multitudes hearing such notions, delivered with the solemn gravity of assumed infallibility, from the pulpit, as the oracles of God, turn away with contempt, and think on the subject no longer.
Happily in this country, no man to qualify himself for offices of trust and profit, or to obtain respect in the higher ranks of society, is obliged to profess at least, to believe that he is naturally and radically corrupt, destitute of virtuous principle, and an heir of damnation. If any choose to think thus of themselves, we may admire their humility, pity their mistake, but rejoice that in most instances their practical conduct is a refutation of their creed.
Under these circumstances, Unitarianism has made its public appearance in this land with singular advantages. It announces no mysteries, it promulgates no paradoxes, it requires no prostration of the understanding at the shrine of implicit faith. It invites examination, it appeals to reason, to nature, and to scripture, for its truth. It has an advocate in the breast of every man who is accustomed to listen with respect to these authorities. Whatever may have been the obliquities of his early education, his heart assures him that there is a God of infinite and undivided perfections, and that there can only be one such. Even the pious and sensible Trinitarian is perplexed and embarrassed, when in obedience to a creed that he dare not reject, he attempts understandingly to worship a three-fold Deity. Much as he conscientiously dreads the idea of degrading his Savior, he often feels the impossibility of keeping up in his mind the persuasion, that a person who was born, grew, was subject to infirmity, and died, could be really and essentially the same as the Eternal and Ever-living Father. Our system relieves his distress; not by mere reasoning, nor by impressive appeals to the light of nature only: we take the scriptures that he reveres, the Bible that he has been accustomed to venerate as the word of God; and we show him that this book, perverted, mangled and misinterpreted as it has been, does not teach the doctrines from which his reason revolts.
Our belief in all of its points can be expressed in the very word of the sacred writers, without torture, ambiguity, or paraphrase. We want no other creed or confession of faith than what we find in the New Testament. No Trinitarian can truly affirm this. Where will he find his favorite phrases, “God the Son,” and “God the Holy Ghost,” “three persons and one God?” These are not to be found in the Bible, nor the ideas conveyed by them. We are satisfied with the doctrine of Paul, “There is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
Besides, the character of that One, undivided Being, whom we worship, is calculated to excite the veneration and love of every truly serious and intelligent mind. He is essentially good and benevolent, desiring and seeking the happiness of his creatures, imposing no harsh, unnecessary restraints upon them, nor condemning them for faults committed by another, and before they were born; he punishes, but it is for their own sins, and in order to correct them, that they may eventually be saved. He knows their frailty, pities their weakness, and is willing to receive and pardon every repenting and returning sinner. He has graciously provided means for their renovation, and promises to them eternal life beyond the grave, of his own free and un-bought mercy. But the keys of this heavenly kingdom he has not committed to any church or priest: no rites, ceremonies, or external services can insure it; no sudden change or absolution conduct to it. True repentance and amendment of life, are the indispensable conditions of admittance there. Where there is no established creed and profession, such doctrines will commend themselves to men’s consciences and gain ground. Prejudice will struggle awhile against unwelcome truths, but the weight of evidence that attends them will in time procure them general acceptance and success.
Whosoever would rightly estimate the tendencies and effects of national religions upon the progress of truth, should never forget the Holy Offices (Inquisition) in Spain and Portugal, where impaled and burning victims of superstition but served to amuse the wretched ignorance and fatuity of bigoted royalty: let him remember the cruel and cowardly massacre of the Protestants of France under Charles the Ninth: the English act of uniformity which consigned 2000 of the best of men to degradation and poverty, and some of them to imprisonment and death: the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by the faithless Louis, which dispersed as vagrants the most virtuous and most industrious of his subjects, to wander as exiles in foreign lands: in fine, let him keep in mind the numerous oppressions, and daring impiety of a papered clergy in every part of Europe, who have prostituted the most sacred names and solemn rites, to please some princely debauchee, and to rivet more strongly the chains of a deluded, superstitious and enslaved people. These are the trophies of established religions, these the memorials by which their history shall be emblazoned through all succeeding generations. From such recollections, may the people of this happy country learn to “stand fast in that liberty wherewith God in his mercy has made them free.”
One of the greatest blessings secured by its excellence constitution, is contained in the article which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” If our ancestors in Europe had adopted such a fundamental law ten centuries ago, millions of lives, sacrificed to the blind demon Bigotry, would have been saved, and incalculable human sufferings prevented.
Secondly, let us glance at the security we feel that our opponents cannot overthrow the cause in which we are embarked.
We regret that any should be so mistaken as to wish it overthrown, for it is identical with the cause of liberty and truth. We only plead for the natural unalienable right of every human being to judge for himself, in a concern of infinite importance to himself. Free and impartial investigation is surely the most likely way to arrive at satisfaction and certainty, in matters confessedly difficult. And why should freemen who have renounced the slavish political doctrines by which nations have been held in a state of childhood and bondage, for successive generations, content themselves with following in religious opinions, the weak and inconclusive reasoning’s of a credulous and superstitious age, whose mystical speculations have deformed and obscured the fair features of Christianity? Let but the understandings of men be fairly and rationally appealed to, and our system cannot be overthrown, for nothing can be more reasonable than the leading, fundamental truth we contend for. God is one – one person or being.
Trinitarians sometimes attempt to qualify their inexplicable notion of a threefold distinction in the Deity, which all their creeds define to consist of three persons, by objecting to the use of the word person, or at least to its use in the accustomed sense. Yet the word is of their own selection, and whatever difficulty they find in maintaining its correctness, they will not or cannot substitute any other which will express their meaning. For ourselves we have no objection, nor hesitation, in respect to the word person. And no one will doubt that by the phrase the Divine Being, we mean God. But if there be three persons, each of whom is a Divine Being, then there are three Gods; and thus we are landed in Polytheism again, by that very system which professed to deliver the world from “Gods many and Lords many.”
What can overthrow that which recommends itself to the understanding and plain good sense of mankind in general, as rational and true? This is not the age in which seraphic doctors, and sublime theologians, with ponderous folios, can awe the inquisitive mind into submission to their incomprehensible reasoning’s and infallible decisions. Mere words will have but little weight with the public opinion: it is not their length or number that will turn the scale; the evidence of their truth alone will enable them to pass current long. He who will attempt to prove that there are more Gods than one, must first persuade men to renounce the evidence that the whole creation gives, of the unity and supremacy of the great first cause, to lay prostrate that reason which God gave him for the regulation of his thoughts, at the footstool of arbitrary authority and implicit faith. The progress of knowledge, the extension of education, insure the success of our cause. Those who predict its overthrow as if it were analogous to those fanatical opinions, which have had an ephemeral existence in various places and ages, and have expired with their first promoters, are not aware that the light which extinguished them, gives strength and solidity to our system: it is in alliance with knowledge; it would require the return of the dark and barbarous ages of the world, to make men forget or renounce it.
It cannot be overthrown, for it is scriptural. Since the days of Chillingworth, his celebrated saying has acquired the reputation of an axiom in theology: “The Bible, the Bible, is the religion of protestants.” If modern protestants will be consistent they cannot refuse this appeal: Will they pretend that Moses taught otherwise than the simple unity of the divine nature? “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.” “Thou shall have no other God before me.” Efforts indeed have been made by a grammatical quibble to support the Trinitarian hypotheses from his writings. But the scheme, though once ingeniously argued by the Hutchinsonian school, is utterly destitute of probability, and depends on a misconception of the structure and idiom of the Hebrew tongue. The word which our translators usually render God, has a plural termination.
They derived it from a root which signifies a curse or oath, and contended that it designated, the Gods, or persons confederated by oath for the creation and redemption of the world. This refined polytheism very readily accommodated itself to the prevailing notion of a covenant of grace between the persons of the Trinity before the world began. But the truth is, that the plural termination of a noun in Hebrew is not sufficient proof of its plural signification. It is one mode of expressing in that language eminence or dignity. Accordingly we find words in the Hebrew scriptures corresponding with creators, husbands, wisdoms, &c.; while it is obvious that only the singular number can be intended.
One incontrovertible fact is a sufficient refutation of such vain reasoning. No Jew, while he continued such, has ever admitted this interpretation of his great Lawgiver’s language. The national and individual faith of that people has ever tenaciously maintained the simple uncompounded and indivisible Unity of the Divine Being. Surely if it had been the intention of Moses to teach any otherwise, we should have heard at least of one sect who had hit upon his true meaning, and contended for something different from the national Unitarianism. But no such instance occurs in their history. The only advocates for a plurality of objects of religious worship among them, were those idolatrous traitors to Israel’s God, whom the law of Moses condemned to death.
If we proceed to the prophetical writings, we shall find the Unity of God a constant theme: the highest beauties of poetry, the most persuasive strains of eloquence, are poured out profusely on this topic. The confident language of prediction anticipates the period, when not only One supreme Ruler should be acknowledged in all the earth, but moreover that his Name would be One. In what passage will a Trinitarian discover that the name of the Christian’s God should be Tree-fold? Zech. Xiv. 9.
Is there anything equivocal in the lofty and sublime language of Isaiah? “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the King of Israel, I am the first and the last; and beside me there is no God. Is there a God beside me? Yea, there is no God, I know not any” Isa. Xliv. 6, 8.
“To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? Says the Holy One.” Xl. 25.
But may not the New Testament have so explained and modified the Unitarianism of Moses and the Prophets as to render it consistent with the plurality contended for by Trinitarians? Attend to the following facts: Jesus uniformly spoke of himself as the Servant, Son, and Worshipper of the Father, whom he calls the God of the Jews, and the only true God: by him he was taught what he should say, and what he should speak – of himself he could do nothing: and when arisen from the dead, “I ascend,” said he, “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Neither of the Evangelists, in recording his history, has said anything implying a dignity greater than that of being the commissioned messenger of the Most High, to instruct and save mankind. Even after his ascension, Peter, in claiming from the Jews the honor due to his exalted master, describes him as “a man approved (or attested) of God by miracles, and wonders, and signs, which God did by him.”
The great apostle of the gentiles, who certainly would not mislead them as to the object of worship, says, “To us, (Christians) there is but one God even the Father.” Whatever may be pretended, it is certain that no teacher of the modern Trinitarian systems would express himself on these subjects in the unguarded manner of the sacred writers.
Some few texts are alleged against us. Texts of doubtful meaning, or doubtful authority. Are these to determine us in opposition to the plain, unforced and current testimony of the holy books? That were to reverse the important rule, of interpreting things dark and difficult in consistency with those which are clear and obvious.
Besides , critical examination and learned researches are continually clearing away these difficulties, and brightening up the evidence of the reasonableness and consistency of the genuine scripture. Every satisfactory investigation of the most ancient manuscripts has hitherto resulted in diminishing the props of the prevailing theology, and adding strength to Unitarian Christianity.
But the manifest utility of our labors in this cause, insures its success. If the scheme we oppose were a mere un-influential theory, however erroneous, it were of less consequence to controvert it. It really has many mischievous tendencies and effects; it gives a false and discouraging view of the character of God; it fills the mind with confusion, and distracts the most serious worshipper in his approaches to the throne of grace; it spreads a gloomy austerity over the whole system of personal and social piety, with which it is generally connected; and whether necessarily or not, it has in fact been usually associated with intolerance, malignity, and persecution, as its whole history, from the council of Nice to the present day, demonstrates. We wish to see it supplanted by a system which is agreeable to the primitive instructions of Jesus and his apostles, which violates no correct principles of reasoning or morality, and which, being compatible with man’s present condition, is capable of rendering the duties of religion delightful in their performance, and salutary in their influence on the temper and conduct of its votaries. Men will not always, they will not long, remain insensible of the advantages of truth and reason, over implicit faith and wild fanaticism.
We have thus shown that Unitarian views of Christianity are rational, scriptural, and useful: the conclusion is inevitable, that they are of God, and cannot be overthrown. To use the language of a very eloquent advocate for our opinions – “The sole object of our efforts is to remove the prejudices which obstruct inquiry, and obtain full and candid examination. Let the evidences of Unitarianism be properly discussed, and its friends have no apprehension as to the result. We have mighty advocates, whose voice is resistless. The mind of man pleads for us! Left to itself, it rises indignant at creeds which fetter the understanding and narrow the heart. The word of God pleads for us! It bears our sentiments on every page, and rarely can it be perverted or tortured into the semblance of Trinitarianism. The heavens and the earth plead for us! Wherever they indicate design, it is benevolent design; and never has anyone deduced from their appearances a plurality of creators. The revelation of God, the reason of man, the constitution of nature, with united voice proclaim these eternal truths: There is one God and God is Love!”[i]
[In general reference to the topics of this address, it is presumed that my hearers may justly be divided into two classes: those who disapprove and condemn the principles I have aimed to advance, and those who adopt and profess them. To each of these I would address a few words of serious exhortation.
1. Do you dislike our opinions, and hold them to be false and dangerous? Is this the result of your own patient and careful examination of them? Or did others tell you this? And had those, who thus taught you, no personal interest at stake, that might bias their judgment or mislead them in this respect? Be this as it may; are you wise to suffer others to judge for you in a concern of this nature? “Be not children, &c.” Read the scriptures for yourselves, and compare and judge. Say not, we are incapable of judging in this matter, we have not sufficient leisure, or sufficient learning. Yet, you esteem the Bible a revelation from heaven: but, according to this, it is a revelation only to clergymen and linguists. Such was not the gospel of Christ. To the poor, that gospel was first preached; and by them, it was comprehended, believed, and obeyed. They received it, e says, “in an honest and good heart,” understanding it. [comp. Luke 8 and Matt. 13.]
If doctrines are taught, as essential to salvation, which the simple cannot understand and the honest cannot believe; such, I repeat, are not the doctrines of Christ. You believe in the efficacy of prayer, and reproach us for our supposed want of humility and sense of dependence upon God. We, therefore, exhort you to pray to that pure fountain of light, in whom is no darkness at all, that he would deliver your minds from prejudice and passion, when you attempt to examine the scripture testimony on the subjects about which we differ. Do not wish anything to be true, which cannot prove itself to be so, by its own proper evidence. Your anathematizing us, and being angry, proves nothing except the weakness of our cause, or your incompetency to defend it. Let your researches after truth be sincere, humble, patient, and impartial; without arrogant censures and rash judgment; and although they should lead to conviction different from ours, we shall respect the manly freedom of your enquiries, and revere the piety that governs your faith. If it be otherwise with you, your heat cannot make truth falsehood, nor your obstinacy convert error into truth. At all events, remember, in the language of the pious Watts, that
“Consciences and souls were made
To be the Lord’s alone.”
Do not bind heavy burthens and lay them upon other men’s shoulders. Neither attempt, by unwarranted impositions, to put a yoke upon the necks of the disciples, which human nature cannot, consistently with intellectual freedom, bear.
2. There are those who approve our efforts and rank themselves with our friends. We earnestly beseech you to do honor to your profession, and strengthen our hands, by a wise and virtuous conversation, joined with a good, unblemished life. Think not that the correctness of your judgment can absolve you from the obligations of practical morality. Far be it from me to presume to decide, how much imperfection in practice may be compatible with sincerity in a religious profession; but it is peculiarly important, that our behavior should not require any apology or excuse before others. The very best of us will have sufficient reason to pray, “God be merciful, &c.” But let us not aggravate our common infirmities by a careless and willful profanity, or the indulgence of wild passions, which reason condemns and from which piety revolts with disgust.
If your understandings are more enlightened than others, your conduct should be more correct. Let wisdom, integrity, and purity, characterize your ordinary course of behavior. We ask you not to be ascetics, forgetting the duties of this world in melancholy devotions, and aspirations after unseen objects. We attach no importance to a multitude of prayers, or perpetual sermon-hearing. We had rather you were renowned for honesty, sobriety, charity, discretion, speaking the truth always, and doing good to all; after the example of our heavenly Father, and of our gracious Master, who set us an example, that, &c.
Thus shall we prove that our cause is identical with that which avowed its design to be to teach all men to live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; and was, therefore, worthy of the appellation of
[“THE GLORIOUS GOSPEL OF THE BLESSED GOD!”]
Reply to popular objections against Unitarianism. A sermon preached at Bristol, (England) in 1815, by W. J. Fox.