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eminence, more daring than its neighbour, rears its narrowed summit, on which, truth, like Noah's dove, may find a resting place, but all beneath is indefinite, uncertain, and insecure.
We know, for instance, that such a city as Rome has existed, and still exists; tradition has darkly shadowed forth the time and manner of its origin; in after ages this taper of tradition kindles into the light of history, and then we see statesmen, orators, poets, the one controlling the political destiny, the others moulding the intellect of a great and powerful people; and finally the vision settles again into darkness, and we behold an atheist
pope on the throne of the Cæsars, and the queen of the world divested of her splendour, and sunk in the dust. These are the outlines; call them truths if you please. Select a few more, and fill up the picture with such materials as you can collect from the doubtful records, which time has spared, and you will have the history of a large portion of the world for a period of two thousand years.
Such is the authority of history. Turn next to the authority of men. If the former is universal, the latter is omnipotent. How small is the number of persons, who pretend to think and act for themselves? Aristotle ruled the minds of men for ten centuries, before they made the lucky discovery, that he was a false guide. Look over the list of religious sects, if you have time to waste, and observe each party scrupulously adopting the patronymic of its leader. Read Eusebius, and Socrates, and Sozomon, and wonder at the hard names, which the early christians assumed to designate their sects, and which have for ages been forgotten. Consult the records of later times, and observe the same passion
for names diffusing itself, as the religion extends. Then look around among your neighbours and friends, and trace the opinions of each to their true origin. How rare is it to find one, who is not treading in the steps of a guideWho thinks of walking by his own light, and trusting to his own strength? Can it not be said by many with as great truth at the present day, as in the days of Seneca, Exempla multa sunt, nec ad rationem, sed ad similitudinem vivimus? Some follow creeds and written formulas; some are contented with the fashions and customs of a church; some listen submissively to the voice of a leader, whose wisdom they respect, or whose power they fear, or whose good graces it is their interest to conciliate.
The result is the same in either case; full latitude is left for the ravages of error. The man, who gives up his independence of thought and opinion, is manacled, and will be a prisoner as long as he lives. “In short," says Arthur Ashley Sykes, “these persons are all, to their respective judges, just what Sancho was to Don Quixote; they are fully persuaded of enchantments, giants, and adventures, which their masters dream of; they bring themselves into frequent difficulties to justify them, and then expect no less, than islands, or earldoms, as the rewards of their follies.” These are a part only of the evils. Religious opinions descended from ancestors, or held up by the prop of a great name, are commonly the last, which will be yielded; they radicate and sanctify error. “You may as well charm a fever asleep with the noise of bells,” says Jeremy Taylor, “as make any pretence of reason against that religion, which old men have entailed upon their heirs male so many generations till they can prescribe.”
But it is not so much my purpose to search for evils, as to state facts. It is a fact, that all the world is influenced by authority, both in religion and every other subject of opinion. Revelation is built on authority; but this is the authority of God, in which we cannot be deceived, for his veracity is as essential as his being. The Gospel history depends on the authority of the apostles; we cannot err in following this, because they acted under the immediate agency of God, and spoke as his spirit dictated. But in almost every thing pertaining to our present condition, and in the means of knowing what has actually been revealed and taught by inspired men, we are compelled to rely on unassisted human powers. All the information we possess has come to us through the channels of other men's minds, extended and methodized by the imperfect operations of our own. To affix a crime to every error, which mingles in the current of knowledge, would be to suppress inquiry, encourage skeptieism, and drive every man, as the only safe resort, to profess discipleship to Pyrrho. To doubt all things, or be ignorant of all, would be the happy state of security, to which every wise and prudent person would aspire.
Let the foregoing remarks be applied to religious opinions. As the sentiments of christians are almost infinitely various, in regard to many particulars of their common faith, it is evident that errors without number must exist among them. Before we charge any moral offence against the persons, who entertain their due share of these errors, charity requires us to look at the causes. We have seen, that errors spring up on every side, without our knowledge, will, or consent; common sense tells us, that such errors are not
punishable; in all cases, therefore, common sense, and common charity demand an impartial investigation of causes and motives, before we hazard a judgment on the opinions of others. Will you punish a man for what he believes, or what he does not believe; for believing too much, or too little? In either case he errs; and if one error is criminal, so is the other. In
my mind it is better to set up no tribunal in an affair of this sort, but to allow men to stand or fall at the tribunal of their own consciences, and in the presence of their own master. If we feel our spirit rise within us, and cannot but look upon it as a matter of duty to judge of the importance of any particular error, which has come under our notice, we can hardly be more secure than in following the good rule of Dr. Sykes, who says, “All such things may a man err in safely, of which he may safely be ignorant; for if his salvation is not at stake by reason of his knowledge, supposing he masters the truth he aims at, it is superfluous knowledge in respect of salvation; and, therefore, if he mistakes it, he mistakes about something; which has no relation to his salvation.” This rule will be of special advantage to those, who are in haste to judge, and whose stock of patience is not sufficiently bountiful to sustain them in a proper inquiry into conduct, character, and motives.
Another thing should be settled with some precision before we pass the sentence of guilt. Who is right, and who is wrong? This point is of some importance, and will be realized as such by every one, who does not rely more confidently, than he has claims to rely, on his own infallibility. Or shall we say, that all errors are dangerous but our own? Shall we take it for granted, that
all truth is on our side, and proceed to condemn every thing else as criminal error? We may venture to do this, when we can persuade ourselves, that we are exempt from the common lot of humanity, and have never been in a mistake.
In conclusion, it may be asserted as a truth, which does not admit contradiction, that error is always innocent when the causes cannot be avoided, when the conscience approves, when the life is holy, the intention good, and the love of truth is sincere. "If by reason of the seeming conflict,” says Chillingworth, “which is oftentimes between scripture, reason, and authority on the one side, and scripture, reason, and authority on the other; if by reason of the variety of tempers, abilities, educations, and unavoidable prejudices, whereby men's understandings are variously formed and fashioned, they do embrace several opinions, whereof some must be erroneous; to say that God will damn them for such errors, who are lovers of him, and lovers of truth, is to rob man of his comfort, and God of his goodness; is to make man desperate, and God a tyrant.” Where we honestly seek truth, we shall be rewarded for our honesty, although we may not obtain the object we desire. The man who is willing to be deceived to gratify his private interests, and wicked ends, will be punished, not for his errors, but for his evil disposition, and his abuse of the faculties and means by which, if he would, he might come at truth.
The broad principles of christian faith and practice have never been misapprehended; the points of agreement between sincere christians, who love their Maker and study his word, are the only essential points. It is a mark of suspicion on any doctrine, that it has equally