MODERN SKEPTICISM: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE LAND OF DOUBT AND BACK AGAIN.
A Life Story
Philadelphia: Smith, English & Co. 1874. Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1874, by Rev. Joseph Barker, In the office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington. Jas. B. Rodgers Co., Printers and Stereotypers, Philadelphia.
Introduction.—My early life.—Enter the Church.—The Ministry.—Happy days.—Sad change.—How happened it? 17
Causes of unbelief.—Vice.—Other causes.—Constitutional tendencies to doubt.—Disappointed expectations about Christianity.—Mysteries of Providence.—Misrepresentations of Christ and Christianity in human creeds.—Church divisions.—Ignorant advocates of Christianity.—Wrong principles of reasoning.—False science, 19
Another cause of unbelief.—Bad feeling between ministers or among church members.—Alienates them from each other.—Then separates them from the Church.—Then from Christ.—How it works.—My case, 26
Origin of the unhappy feeling between me and some of my brother ministers.—Tendencies of my mind.—Rationalizing tendency.—Its effects.—Reading.—Investigations.—Discoveries, 30
Modification of my early creed.—Unscriptural doctrines relinquished.—Scriptural ones adopted.—Some doctrines modified.—Theological fictions dropped.—Eager for the pure, simple truth as taught by Jesus.—Doctrine of types given up.—Other notions relinquished.—Alarm of some of my brethren at these changes, 44
How preachers and theologians indulge their fancies on religion.—John Wesley.—His resolution to be a man of one book.—What came of his resolution.—His sermon on God's approbation of His works,—unscriptural and unphilosophical throughout.—Illustrations and proofs.—And Wesley was one of the best and wisest, one of the most honest and single-minded of our theologians.—What then may we expect of others?—Evils of theological trifling.—Mischievous effects of mixing human fictions with Divine revelations, 55
Further theological investigations.—Unwarranted statements by preachers.—John Foster's Essay on Some of the Causes by which Evangelical Religion is Rendered Distasteful to Persons of Cultivated Minds.—Introduction of similar views to the notice of my ministerial brethren.—The reception they met with.—No Church has got all the truth.—Most Churches, perhaps all, have got portions of it, which others have not.—My attempts to gather up the fragments from all.—Freedom from bigotry.—Love to all Christians.—Judging trees by their fruit.—Reading the books of various denominations, like foreign travel, liberalizes the mind.—I found truth and goodness in all denominations.—Appropriated all as part of my patrimony.—Results.—Suspicions and fears among my brethren.—Mutterings: Backbitings: Controversy. Bad feeling, 65
My style of preaching.—Decidedly practical.—Using Christianity as a means for making bad people into good ones, and good ones always better.—Reasons for this method.—A family trait.—Hereditary.—Great need of practical preaching.—Folly of other kinds of Preaching.—Littleness of great Preachers.—Worthlessness of great sermons.—The Truly Great are the Greatly Good and Greatly Useful.—My Models.—The Bible.—Jesus.—My Favorite Preachers.—Billy Dawson, David Stoner, James Parsons.—My Favorite Books.—The Bible—Nature.—Simple Common Sense, instructive, earnest, moving books.—How my preaching was received by the people.—Its effects on churches and congregations.—Uneasiness of my colleagues.—Fresh mutterings; tale bearings; controversies; and more bad feeling, 82
Extracts from my Diary.—A strange preacher.—Horrible sermons.—Lights of the world that give no light.—Theological mist and smoke.—Narrow-mindedness.—Intolerance.—T. Allin,—Great preaching great folly.—A. Scott,—A good preacher.—Sanctification.—Keep to Scripture.—R. Watson: theological madness.—Big Books on the way of salvation; puzzling folks.—Antinomian utterances about Christ's work and man's salvation.—Preachers taking the devil's side; and doing his work.—Scarcity of common sense in priesthoods, and of uncommon sense.—The great abundance of nonsense and bad sense.—Common religious expressions that are false.—Favorite Hymns that are not Scriptural—Baxter's good sense, 98
Reforming tendencies.—Corruptions in the Church.—Bad trades.—Faults in the ministry.—Toleration of vice.—Drinking habits.—Intemperance.—The Connexion.—Faulty rules.—Bad customs.—Defective institutions.—All encouraged to suggest reforms and punished for doing so.—Original principles of the Connexion set aside, and persecution substituted for freedom.—My simplicity.—My reward.—The Ministry.—Drunkenness.—Teetotalism.—Advocacy of Temperance.—Outcry of preachers.—My Evangelical Reformer.—Articles on the prevailing vices of the Church; On Toleration and Human Creeds;—On Channing's Works; On Anti-Christian trading, &c., get me into trouble.—Conference interference.—Conference trials.—The state of things critical.—No remedy.—Matters get worse and worse.—Exciting events: too many to be named here.—Envy, jealousy, rage, strife, confusion, and many evil works.—Conspiracies: Fierce conflicts.—Expulsion, 117
Explanations about the different Methodist Bodies.—Grounds of my reformatory proceedings.—About immoralities.—Christianity not to blame for the faults of professors and preachers.—My own defects, 153
Story of my life continued.—Results of my expulsion.—Fierce fighting.—Desperation of my persecutors.—Great excitement on my part.—Rank crop of slanders.—Monstrous ones.—And silly ones.—Bad deeds as well as wicked words.—Hard work.—Exhaustion.—Powerlessness.—Three days' rest.—Long sleep.—Wonderful,—delightful,—result.—Public debates.—Remarkable occurrences; seemed Providential.—A lying opponent unexpectedly confronted and confounded.—New Body,—Christian Brethren.—My church at Newcastle.—Change in my views, and fresh troubles.—Losses.—Poverty.—Learn the Printing business.—Follow it under difficulties.—Want of funds.—Generous friends. Family on the verge of want.—Pray.—An unlooked-for cart-load of provisions.—Trust in Providence.—False friends.—True ones.—A mad utterance.—A worse deed.—Theological Conventions.—Free investigations and public discussions.—Change of views, 103
Approach to Unitarianism.—Kindness of Unitarians.—Preaching and lecturing in their pulpits.—Ten nights' public discussion with Rev. W. Cooke.—Subjects.—Results.—Publications.—Now periodicals.—Unitarian invitation to London.—Public reception.—Liberal contributions to Steam Press Fund.—Press presentation.—Dr. Bateman; Dr.-Sir-John Bowring.—Pleasurable change from intolerance and persecution to friendship and favor.—Discoveries.—Unitarianism has many phases.—Channingism.—Anti-supernaturalism.—Deism.—Atheism.—Gradually slid down to the lower, 191
The Bible.—My earliest views of its origin and authority.—Changed as I grew up.—Further changes.—Important facts about the Bible.—False theories of its Divine inspiration.—The true—the Bible's own,—doctrine on the subject.—Needful to keep inside of this.—No defence outside either for the Bible or for Bible men.—Explanations: illustrations: testimonies of celebrated writers.—The PERFECTION of the Bible—in what does it consist.—Foolish and impossible notions of perfection.—No absolute perfection in any thing.—No need for it.—Foolish talk about infallibility.—Other important testimonies, 202
Enters politics.—Advocates extreme political views.—Republicanism.—Foretells the French Revolution of 1848.—Great political excitement in England.—Government alarmed.—Get arrested.—Lodged in prison.—Trial.—Triumph over Government.—Great rejoicings.—Elected member of Parliament for Bolton, and Town Councillor for Leeds.—Exhaustion from excess of labor.—Health fails.—Terrible Pains.—Voyage to America and back.—Removes to America.—Objects in doing so.—Settles on a farm.—Gets into fresh excitement.—The Abolitionists.—Women's Rights.—All kinds of wild revolutionary theories.—Go farther into unbelief instead of getting back to Christ.—A mad world, with strange unwritten histories, and awful, nameless mysteries, 241
Story of my descent from the faith of my childhood, to doubt and unbelief.—Bad theological teaching in my early days.—Dreadful results.—Perplexity.—Madness.—Survive all, and get over it.—The first arguments I heard for the Bible.—True basis of religious belief.—Reading on the evidences.—Effects.—Unsound arguments.—Their effect.—Internal evidences best.—Negative criticism, long continued, ruinous both to faith and virtue.—Moving ever downwards.—The devil as a theologian, a poet and a philosopher.—Bible Conventions.—W. L. Garrison, A. J. Davis.—Public discussions in Philadelphia with Dr. McCalla.—The Doctor's disgraceful failure.—Great,—mad,—excitement.—Narrow escape from murder.—Eight nights' debate with Dr. Berg.—The good cause suffered through bad management.—The Doctor took an untenable position.—Undertook to prove too much and failed.—Substantially right, but logically wrong.—Other debates in Ohio, Indiana, England and Scotland.—Mean and mischievous opponents.—Honorable and useful ones.—Bad advocates of a good cause, its worst enemies, 269
Continuation of my Story.—Lectures on the Bible in Ohio.—Trouble.—Riot.—Rotten eggs.—Midnight mischief.—Had to move.—Settlement among Liberals, Comeouters.—Too fond of liberty.—Would have my share as well as their own.—Fresh trouble.—Another forced move.—Settlement in the wilds of Nebraska, among Indians, wolves, and rattlesnakes.—Experience there.—A change for the better.—How brought about.—Quiet of mind.—Reflection.—Horrors of Atheism.—Destroys the value of life.—Deceives you; mocks you; makes you intolerably miserable.—Suggests suicide.—Prosperity not good for much without religion: adversity, sickness, pain, loss, bereavement intolerable.—Strange adventures in the wilderness; terrible dangers; wonderful deliverances.—Solemn thoughts and feelings in the boundless desert.—Solitude and silence preach.—Religious feelings revive.—Recourse to old religious books.—Demoralizing tendency of unbelief.—Lecture in Philadelphia.—Cases of infidel depravity.—You can't make people good, nor even decent, without religion.—Infidelity means utter debasement.—A good, a loving, and a faithful wife, who never ceases to pray.—Return to England.—Experience there.—Unbounded licentiousness of Secularism.—Total separation from the infidel party.—My new Periodical.—Resolution to re-read the Bible, to do justice to Christianity, &c.—A sight of Jesus.—Happy results.—Change both of head and heart.—Happy transformation of character.—A new life.—New work.—New lot.—From darkness to light,—From death to life,—from purgatory to paradise,—from hell to heaven, 310
Parties whose Christian sympathy, and wise words, and generous deeds, helped me back to Christ, 345
The steps by which I gradually returned to Christ.—Lectures and sermons on the road.—Answers to objections against the Bible and Christianity.—Spiritualism.—Strange phenomena.—Answers to objections advanced by myself in the Berg debate.—The position to be taken by advocates of the Bible and Christianity.—Additional remarks on Divine inspiration.—What it implies, and what it does not imply.—Overdoing is undoing.—Genesis and Geology.—The Bible and Science.—Public discussions,—explanation.—At Home in the Church.—Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.—Joy unspeakable, 355
Lessons I have learned.—1. Men slow to learn wisdom by the experience of others.—2. Danger of bad feeling.—3. Of a controversial spirit.—4. Old ministers should deal tenderly with their younger brethren.—5. Young thinkers should be prayerful, humble, watchful; yet faithful to conscience and to truth, trusting in God.—6. With Christian faith goes Christian virtue.—The tendency of unbelief is ever downwards.—7. Unbelievers are not irreclaimable.—We should not pass them by unpitied or unhelped.—8. Converts from infidelity must look for trials.—They must not expect too much from churches and ministers. Paul's case.—9. They must risk all for Christ, and bear their losses and troubles patiently.—10. They should join the Church, right away.—Not look for a perfect Church.—Keep inside.—Bear unpleasantnesses meekly.—Stones made smooth and round in the stream, by the rubbing they get from other stones.—Reformers should move gently, and have long patience.—The more haste the worst speed.—Killing rats.—12. Unbelief, when not a sin, is a terrible calamity: a world of calamities in one, 406
CONCLUDING REMARKS, 437
The object of this Book is, First, to explain a portion of my own history, and, Secondly, to check the spread of infidelity, and promote the interests of Christianity. How far it is calculated to answer these ends I do not pretend to know. I have no very high opinion of the work myself. I fear it has great defects. On some points I may have said too much, and on others too little. I cannot tell. I have however done my best, and I would fain hope, that my labors will not prove to have been altogether in vain.
I have spent considerable time with a view to bring my readers to distinguish between the doctrines of Christ, and the theological fictions which are so extensively propagated in His name. It is exceedingly desirable that nothing should pass for Christianity, but Christianity itself. And it is equally desirable that Christianity should be seen in its true light, as presented in the teachings and character, in the life and death of its great Author. A correct exposition of Christianity is its best defence. A true, a plain, a faithful and just exhibition of its spirit and teachings, and of its adaptation to the wants of man, and of its tendency to promote his highest welfare, is the best answer to all objections, and the most convincing proof of its truth and divinity. And the truth, the reasonableness, the consistency, the purifying and ennobling tendency, and the unequalled consoling power of Christianity, can be proved, and proved with comparative ease; but to defend the nonsense, the contradictions, the antinomianism and the blasphemies of theology is impossible.
I have taken special pains to explain my views on the Divine Inspiration of the Scriptures. I am satisfied that no attempts to answer the objections of infidels against the Bible will prove satisfactory, so long as men's views on this subject go beyond the teachings of the Scriptures themselves. To the fanciful theories of a large number of Theologians the sacred writings do not answer, and you must therefore, either set aside those theories, and put a more moderate one in their place, or give up the defence of the Bible in despair. I therefore leave the extravagant theories to their fate, and content myself with what the Scriptures themselves say; and I feel at rest and secure.
The views I have given on the subject in this work, and in my pamphlet on the Bible, are not new. You may find them in the works of quite a number of Evangelical Authors. The only credit to which I am entitled is, that I state them with great plainness, and without reserve, and that I do not, after having given them on one page, take them back again on the next.
How far my friends will be able to receive or tolerate my views on these points, I do not know. I hope they will ponder them with all the candor and charity they can. I have kept as near to orthodox standards as I could, without doing violence to my conscience, and injustice to the truth. I would never be singular, if I could honestly help it. It is nothing but a regard to God, and duty, and the interests of humanity, that prevents me going with the multitude. It would be gratifying in the extreme to see truth and the majority on one side, and to be permitted to take my place with them: but if the majority take sides with error, I must take my place with the minority, and look for my comfort in a good conscience, and in the sweet assurance of God's love and favor.
In looking over some manuscripts some time ago, belonging to a relation of my wife's father-in-law, I found the following story of a dream. Some have no regard for dreams, but I have. I have both read of dreams, and had dreams myself, that answered marvellously to great realities; and this may be one of that kind. In any case, as the Preface does not take up all the space set apart for it, I am disposed to give it a few of the vacant pages.
The dreamer's account of his dream is as follows.
'After tiring my brain one day with reading a long debate between a Catholic and a Protestant about the Infallibility of the Church and the Bible, I took a walk along a quiet field-path near the river, full of thought on the subject on which I had been reading. The fresh air, the pleasant scene, and the ripple of the stream, had such a soothing effect on me, that I lost myself, and passed unconsciously from the World of realities, into the Land of dreams. I found myself in a large Hall, filled with an eager crowd, listening to a number of men who had assembled, as I was told, to discuss the affairs of the Universe, and put an end to controversy. The subject under discussion just then was the Sun. I found that after the world had lived in its light for thousands of years, and been happy in the abundance of the fruit, and grain, and numberless blessings produced by his wondrous influences, some one, who had looked at the Great Light through a powerful telescope, had discovered that there were several dark spots on his disk or face, and that some of them were of a very considerable size. He named the matter to a number of his friends who, looking through the telescope for themselves, saw that such was really the case.
'Now there happened to be an order of persons in the Land of dreams whose business it was to praise the Sun, and extol its Light. And they had a theory to the effect, that the Light of the Sun was unmixed, and that the Sun itself was one uniform mass of brightness and brilliancy, without speck, or spot, or any such thing. They held that the Head of their order was the Maker of the Sun,—that He Himself was Light, and that in Him was no darkness at all; and that the Sun was exactly like Him, intense, unmingled, and unvarying Light. When these people heard of the alleged discovery of the spots, they raised a tremendous cry, and some howled, and some shrieked, and all united in pronouncing the statement a fiction, and in denouncing in severe terms, both its author, and all who took his part, as deceivers; as the enemies of the Sun, as blasphemers of its Author, and as the enemies of the human race.
'This was one of the great controversies which this world-wide convention had met to bring to an end.
'As I took my place in the Hall, one of the Professors of the Solar University was speaking. He said the story about the spots was a wicked calumny; and he went into a lengthy and labored argument to show, that the thing was absurd and impossible. 'The Sun,' said he, 'was made by an All-perfect Artificer,—made on purpose to be a Light, the Great Light of the world, and a Light it must be, and nothing else but a Light; a pure unsullied Light all round, without either spot, or speck of any kind, or any varying shade of brilliancy in any part.' He added, 'To say the contrary, is to do the Sun injustice, to dishonor its All-glorious Author, to alienate the minds of men from the Heavenly Luminary, to destroy their faith in his Light and warmth, to plunge the world into darkness, and reduce it to a state of utter desolation. If the Sun is not all light, he is no Light at all. If there be dark spots on one part of his face, there may be dark spots on every part. All may be dark, and what seems Light may be an illusion; a false Light, 'that leads to bewilder, and dazzles to blind.' He is not to be trusted. Every thing is uncertain.' And he called the man who said he had seen the spots, an impostor, a blasphemer, a scavenger, an ass, a foreigner, and a number of other strange names.
'The man he was abusing so unmercifully, stepped forward, and in a meek and quiet spirit said, 'I saw the spots with my own eyes. I have seen them scores of times. I can show them to you, if you will look through this glass.' 'Your glass is a cheat, a lie,' said the Professor. 'But others have seen them,' said the man, 'as well as I, and seen them through a number of other glasses.'
''It is impossible,' answered the Professor. 'A Sun made by an All-perfect God, and made on purpose to be a Light, cannot possibly be defaced with dark spots; and whoever says any thing to the contrary is a ——.'
'Here the Professor rested his case;—'A Sun without spots, or no Sun. Light without variation of shade, or no Light. Prove that the Sun has spots, and you reduce him to a level with an old extinguished lamp, that is fit for nothing but to be cast away as an unclean and worthless thing. The honor of God, and the welfare of the universe all hang on this one question,—Spots, or no spots!'
'His fellow professors took his part, and many spoke in the same strain. But the belief in the spots made its way, and spread further every day, and the consequence was, the obstinate Professors were confounded and put to shame. Facts were too strong for them, and their credit and influence were damaged beyond remedy.
'After the Professors of the Sun were silenced, the Man in the Moon arose and spoke. He contended that both Sun and Moon were free from spots, but said, that no one could see the Sun as it really was, unless he lived in the Moon, and looked at it from his standpoint. 'The Moon,' said he, 'like the Sun, is the work of the All-perfect Creator; and its face is one unchanging blaze of absolute and unvaried brightness.'
'Now all who had ever looked at the Moon, had noticed, that no part of her face was as bright as the Sun, and that some portions were of a shade considerably darker than the rest. And I noticed that even the Professors who had spoken extravagantly about the Sun, looked at each other and smiled, when they heard the statements of the Man in the Moon. Indeed there was such a tittering and a giggling through the Hall, that the meeting was broken up.
'I hastened out, and found there were a hundred discussions going on in the street. Many of the disputants seemed greatly excited. I felt melancholy. A quiet-looking man, with a very gentle expression of countenance, came up to me, and in tones of remarkable sweetness, said, 'You seem moved.' 'I feel troubled,' said I. 'I don't know what to think; and I don't know what to do.' He smiled, and said, 'None of these things move me.' Then lifting up his eyes towards Heaven he said,—'The Sun still shines; and I feel his blessed warmth as sensibly as ever. And the millions of our race still live and rejoice in his beams.' 'Thank God,' said I: 'Yes, I see, he still shines; and I will rest contented with his light and warmth.' 'The spots are there,' said he, 'past doubt; but experience, the strongest evidence of all, proves that they do not interfere with the beneficent influences of the Great and Glorious Orb, or lessen his claims to our respect and veneration, or diminish one jot our obligations to his great Author. They have their use, no doubt. The Sun might be too brilliant without them, and destroy our eyes, instead of giving us light. Too much light might prove as bad as too little. All is well. I accept plain facts. To deny them is to fight against God. To admit them and trust in God is the true faith, and the germ of all true virtue and piety.
''I have no faith in the kind of absolute perfection those professors contend for, either in Sun or Moon, Bible or Church; but I believe in the SUFFICIENCY, or practical perfection of all, and am as happy, and only wish I were as good and useful, as ——'
'Just as he spoke those words, I awoke. He seemed as if he had much to say, and I would fain have heard him talk his sweet talk till now; but perhaps I had heard enough, and ought now to set myself heartily to work, to get through with the business of my life.'
So ends the Dream-story.
Some writers seem to think that their readers should understand and receive their views, however new and strange they may be, the moment they place them before their minds. They cannot understand how that which is clear to them, should not be plain to everybody else. And there are some readers who seem to think, that every thing they meet with in the books they read, however much it may be out of the way of their ordinary thought, or however contrary to their long-cherished belief, should, if it be really intelligible and true, appear so to them at first glance. How can anything seem mysterious or untrue to them, that is not mysterious or untrue in its very nature?
It so happened, that along with the dream-story, I found the following fragment. It is not an interpretation of the dream, but it seems as if it might teach a useful lesson, both to writers and readers.
'Something more than light, and eyes, and surrounding objects, is necessary to seeing. A new-born child may have light, and eyes, and surrounding objects, and yet not see anything distinctly. And a man born blind may have the film removed from his eyes, and be placed, at noontide, in the midst of a world of interesting objects, and yet, instead of seeing things, as we see them, have nothing but a confounding and distressing sensation. Seeing, as we see, is the result of habit, acquired by long-continued use. The new-born babe must have time to exercise its eyes, and exercise its little mind as well, before it can distinguish face from face, and form from form. The man who has just received his sight must have time for similar exercise, before he can enjoy the rich pleasures and advantages of sight to perfection. Even we who have had our sight for fifty years do not see as many things in a picture, a landscape, or a bed of flowers, when we see them for the first time, as those who have been accustomed to inspect and examine such objects for years.
'And so it is with mental and moral vision. Something more than a mind, and instruction, and mental objects are necessary to enable a man to understand religion and duty. Attention, study, comparison, continued with calmness, and candor, and patience, for days, for months, or for years, may be necessary to enable a skeptic to understand, to believe, and to feel like those who have long been disciples of Christ.
'And a change of habits, continued till it produces a change of tastes and desires, is necessary to prepare the sensualist to judge correctly with regard to things moral and religious. We must not therefore expect a good lecture, or an able book, to cure a skeptic of his doubts at once. It may produce an effect which, in time, if the party be faithful to duty, will end in his conversion at a future day. The seed committed to the soil does not produce rich harvests in a day. A change of air and habits does not at once regenerate the invalid. The husbandman has to wait long for his crop: and the physician has to wait long for the recovery of his patient. And the skeptic has to wait long, till the seed of truth, deposited in his soul, unfolds its germs, and produces the rich ripe harvest of faith, and holiness, and joy.
'And preachers and teachers must not think it strange, if their hearers and readers are slow to change. Nor must they despond even though no signs of improvement appear for months or years. A change for the better in a student may not be manifest till it has been in progress for years. It may not be perfected for many years. You cannot force a change of mind, as you can force the growth of a plant in a hot-house. An attempt to do so might stop it altogether. Baxter said, two hundred years ago, 'Nothing so much hindereth the reception of the truth, as urging it on men with too much importunity, and falling too heavily on their errors.'
'Have patience, then. Teach, as your pupil may be prepared to learn, but respect the laws of the Eternal, which have fixed long intervals for slow and silent processes, between the seed-time and the harvest-home.'
While I am in doubt as to whether I have put into my book too much on some subjects, I am thoroughly convinced that I have put into it too little on others. I have not said enough, nor half enough, on Atheism. I ought to have exposed its groundlessness, its folly, and its mischievous and miserable tendency at considerable length.
This defect I shall try to remedy as soon as possible, and in the best way I can.
Some weeks ago I read a paper before the M. E. Preachers' Meeting of Philadelphia, on ATHEISM,—what can it say for itself? The paper was received with great favor, and many asked for its publication. It will form the first article in my next volume.
I expect, in fact, to give the subject of Atheism a pretty thorough examination in that volume, and to show that it is irrational and demoralizing from beginning to end, and to the last extreme.
John Stuart Mill, the head and representative of English Literary and Philosophical Atheists, has left us a history of his life, and of his father's life. In this work he presents us with full length portraits of himself and his father, and both gives us their reasons for being Atheists, and reveals to us the influence of their Atheism on their hearts and characters, as well as on their views on morality, politics, and other important subjects.
And though the painter, as we might expect, flatters to some extent both himself and his father, yet he gives us the more important features of both so truthfully, that we have no difficulty in learning from them, what kind of creatures great Philosophical Atheists are, or in gathering from their works a great amount of information about infidelity, of the most melancholy, but of the most interesting and important character.
This Autobiography of Mr. Mill I propose to review. I meant to review it in this volume, but I had not room. I intend therefore to give it a place in my next volume, which may be looked for in the course of the year.
Another work has just been published, called The Old Faith and the New. It is the last and most important work of D. F. Strauss, the greatest and ablest advocate of antichristian and atheistic views that the ages have produced,—the Colossus or Goliath of all the infidel hosts of Christendom. In this work, which he calls his CONFESSION, Strauss, like Mill, gives us a portrait of himself, exhibiting not only his views, and the arguments by which he labors to sustain them, but the influence of those views on the hearts, the lives, the characters, and the enjoyments of men. If this Book can be answered,—if the arguments of Strauss can be fairly met, and his views effectually refuted, infidelity must suffer serious damage, and the cause of Christianity be greatly benefited. I have gone through the Book with great care. I have measured and weighed its arguments. And my conviction is, that the work admits of a thorough and satisfactory refutation. If I had had space, I should have made some remarks on it in this volume: but I had not. I propose therefore to review it at considerable length in my next.
Some time ago Robert Owen was a prominent man in the infidel world. He was extolled by his friends as a great Philanthropist. He too left us a history of his life, and his son, Robert Dale Owen, has just been repeating portions of that history in the Atlantic Monthly. It may be interesting to my readers to know what Atheism can do in the way of Philanthropy. We propose therefore to add a review of the Life of Robert Owen to those of Strauss and Mill.
Robert Dale Owen himself was an Atheist formerly, and a very zealous and able advocate of Atheistical views. He gives his articles in the Atlantic Monthly as an autobiography, and seeks to make the impression that he has revealed to his readers all the important facts of his history without reserve. And he has certainly revealed some strange things. But there are certain facts which he has not revealed, facts of great importance too, calculated to show the demoralizing tendency of infidelity. We propose to render the autobiography of Mr. Dale Owen more complete, more interesting, and more instructive, by the addition of some of those facts.
Frances or Fanny Wright was a friend of Mr. Dale Owen's. She was the great representative female Atheist of her time. Like Mr. Dale Owen's father, she was rich, and like him, seemed desirous to do something in the way of philanthropy. Mr. Dale Owen, who was her agent for some time, gives us some interesting facts with regard to her history, which may prove of service to our readers.
In Buckle we have an Atheistical Historian, who endeavors to prove that we are indebted for all the advantages of our superior civilization, not to Christianity, but to natural science and skepticism alone. He represents Christianity as the enemy of science, and as the great impediment to the advance of civilization. These views of Buckle we regard as false and foolish to the last extreme, and we expect to be able to show that Europe and America are indebted for their superior civilization, and even for their rich treasures of natural science, not to infidelity, but to the influence of Christianity.
Matthew Arnold has just published an interesting book entitled LITERATURE AND DOGMA. It is however a mixed work; and we propose, while noticing a number of its beautiful utterances, to make a few remarks on some of its objectionable sentiments.
There is a great multitude of important facts with regard to Christianity,—facts which can be understood and appreciated by persons of ordinary capacity, and which no man of intelligence and candor will be disposed to call in question; yet facts of such a character as cannot fail, when duly considered, to leave the impression on men's minds, that Christianity is the perfection of all wisdom and goodness, and worthy of acceptance as a revelation from an all-perfect God, and as the mightiest and most beneficent friend of mankind. A number of those facts we propose to give in our next volume.
When a man has travelled far, and seen strange lands, and dwelt among strange peoples, and encountered unusual dangers, it is natural, on his return home, that he should feel disposed to communicate to his family and friends some of the incidents of his travels, and some of the discoveries which he may have made on his way.
So when a man has travelled far along the way of life, especially if he has ventured on strange paths, and come in contact with strange characters, and had altogether a large and varied experience, it is natural, as he draws near to the end of his journey, or when he reaches one of its more important stages, that he should feel disposed to communicate to his friends and kindred some of the incidents of his life's pilgrimage, and some of the lessons which his experience may have engraven on his heart. He will especially be anxious to guard those who have life's journey yet before them, against the errors into which he may have fallen, and so preserve them from the sorrows that he may have had to endure.
And so it is with me. I have travelled far along the way of life. I may now be near its close. I have certainly of late passed one of its most important stages. I have had a somewhat eventful journey. There are but few perhaps who have had a larger or more varied experience. I have committed great errors, and I have in consequence passed through grievous sorrows; and I would fain do something towards saving those who come after me from similar errors and from similar sorrows: and this is the object of the work before you.
At an early period, when I was little more than sixteen years of age, I became a member of the Methodist society. Before I was twenty I became a local preacher. Before I was twenty-three I became a travelling preacher; and after I had got over the first great difficulties of my calling, I was happy in my work; as happy as a mortal man need wish to be. It was my delight to read good books, to study God's Word and works, and to store my mind with useful knowledge. To preach the Gospel, to turn men from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, and to promote the instruction and improvement of God's people were the joy and rejoicing of my soul. There were times, and those not a few, when I could sing with Wesley—
"In a rapture of joy my life I employ, The God of my life to proclaim: 'Tis worth living for this, to administer bliss And salvation in Jesus's name."
And I was very successful in my work. I never travelled in a circuit in which there was not a considerable increase of members, and in one place where I was stationed, the numbers in church-fellowship were more than doubled in less than eighteen months.
In those days it never once entered my mind that I could ever be anything else but a Christian minister: yet in course of time I ceased to be one; ceased to be even a Christian. I was severed first from the Church, and then from Christ, and I wandered at length far away into the regions of doubt and unbelief, and came near to the outermost confines of eternal night. And the question arises,
How happened this? And how happened it that, after having wandered so far away, I was permitted to return to my present happy position?
These two questions I shall endeavor, to the best of my ability, to answer.
CAUSES OF UNBELIEF.
How came I to wander into doubt and unbelief?
1. There are several causes of skepticism and infidelity. One is vice. When a man is bent on forbidden pleasures, he finds it hard to believe in the truth and divinity of a religion that condemns his vicious indulgences. And the longer he persists in his evil course, the darker becomes his understanding, the more corrupt his tastes, and the more perverse his judgment; until at length he "puts darkness for light, and light for darkness; calls evil good and good evil, and mistakes bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter." He becomes an infidel. It is the decree of Heaven that men who persist in seeking pleasure in unrighteousness, shall be given up to strong delusions of the devil to believe a lie.
2. But there are other causes of skepticism and unbelief besides vice. Thomas was an unbeliever for a time,—a very resolute one,—yet the Gospel gives no intimation that he was chargeable with any form of vice. And John the Baptist, one of the noblest characters in sacred history, after having proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah to others, came himself to doubt, whether He was really "the one that should come, or they should look for another." Like the early disciples of the Saviour, and the Jewish people generally, John expected the Messiah to take the throne of David by force, and to rule as a temporal prince; and when Jesus took a course so very different, his confidence in his Messiahship was shaken. And one of the sweetest Psalmists tells us that, as for him, his feet were almost gone; his steps had well-nigh slipped: and that, not because he was eager for sinful pleasures, but because he saw darkness and clouds around the Providence of God: he could not understand or "justify the ways of God to man."
And there are thoughtful and good men still who fall into doubt and unbelief from similar causes. The kind of people who, like Thomas, are constitutionally inclined to doubt, are not all dead. Baxter mentions a class of men who lived in his day, that were always craving for sensible demonstrations. Like Thomas, they wanted to see and feel before they believed. In other words, they were not content with faith; they wanted knowledge. And there are men of that kind still in the world.
And the darkness and clouds which the Psalmist saw around the providence of God are not all gone. There are many things in connection with the government of the world that are hard to be understood,—hard to be reconciled by many with their ideas of what is right. There are mysteries both in nature and in history, which baffle the minds and try the faith of the best and wisest of our race.
3. And there are matters in connection with Christianity to try the faith of men. Like its great Author, when it first made its appearance, it had "neither form nor comeliness" in the eyes of many. It neither met the expectations of the selfish, proud, ambitious Jew, nor of the disputatious, philosophic Greek. To the one "it was a stumbling-block," and to the other "foolishness." And there have been men in every age, who have been unable to find in Christianity all that their preconceived notions had led them to expect in a religion from Heaven. There are men still, even among the sincerest and devoutest friends of Christianity, who are puzzled and staggered at times by the mysterious aspects of some of its doctrines, or by some of the facts connected with its history. They cannot understand, for instance, how it is that it has not spread more rapidly, and become, before this, the religion of the whole world. You tell them the fault is in its disciples and ministers, and not in Christianity itself. But they cannot understand why God should allow the success of a system so important to depend on faithless or fallible men. Nor can they understand how it is that in the nations in which the Gospel has been received, it has not worked a greater transformation of character, and produced a happier change in their condition. How is it, they ask, that it has not extinguished the spirit of war, destroyed the sordid lust for gain, developed more fully the spirit of self-sacrificing generosity, and converted society into one great brotherhood of love? How is it that the Church is not more holy, more united, and more prosperous,—that professors and teachers of Christianity do not exhibit more of the Christian character, and follow more closely the example of the meek and lowly, the loving and laborious, the condescending and self-sacrificing Saviour whose name they bear? They are amazed that so little is done by professing Christians to save the perishing classes; that so many of the churches, instead of grappling with the vice and wretchedness of our large towns, turn their backs on them, build their churches in aristocratic neighborhoods mostly, and compete with one another for the favor of the rich and powerful. They cannot understand how it is, that churches and ministers do not exert themselves more for the extinction of drunkenness, gambling, and licentiousness, and for the suppression of all trades and customs that minister to sin. It startles them to see to what a fearful extent the churches have allowed the power of the press, which once was all their own, to pass out of their hands, into the hands of selfish, worldly, and godless adventurers. These matters admit of explanation, but there are many to whose minds the explanation is never presented, and there are some whom nothing will relieve from perplexity and doubt but a grander display of Christian zeal and philanthropic effort, on the part of the churches, for the regeneration of society.
4. Then the religion of Christ is not, as a rule, presented to men in its loveliest and most winning, or in its grandest and most overpowering form. As presented in the teachings and character of Christ, Christianity is the perfection of wisdom and goodness, the most glorious revelation of God and duty the mind of man can conceive: but as presented in the creeds, and characters, and writings of many of its teachers and advocates, it has neither beauty, nor worth, nor credibility. Some teach only a very small portion of Christianity, and the portion they teach they often teach amiss. Some doctrines they exaggerate, and others they maim. Some they caricature, distort, or pervert. And many add to the Gospel inventions of their own, or foolish traditions received from their fathers; and the truth is hid under a mass of error. Many conceal and disfigure the truth by putting it in an antiquated and outlandish dress. The language of many theologians, like the Latin of the Romish Church, is, to vast numbers, a dead language,—an unknown tongue. There are hundreds of words and phrases used by preachers and religious writers which neither they nor their hearers or readers understand. In some of them there is nothing to be understood. They are mere words; meaningless sounds. Some of them have meanings, but they are hard to come at, and when you have got at them you find them to be worse than none. They are falsehoods that lurk within the dark and antiquated words. I have heard and even read whole sermons in which nine sentences out of ten had no more meaning in them than the chatter of an ape. Perhaps not so much. I have gone through large volumes and found hardly a respectable, plain-meaning sentence from beginning to end. And wagon loads of so-called religious books may still be found, in which, as in the talk of one of Shakespeare's characters, the ideas are to the words as three grains of wheat to a bushel of chaff; you may search for them all day before you find them; and when you find them they are good for nothing. When I first came across such books I supposed it was my ignorance or want of capacity that made it impossible for me to understand them; but I found, at length, that there was nothing in them to understand. There are other books which have a meaning, a good meaning, but it is wrapped up in such out-of-the-way words and phrases, that it is difficult to get at it. Men of science have not only discarded the foolish fictions of darker ages, but have begun to simplify their language; to cast aside the unspeakable and unintelligible jargon of the past, and to use plain, good, common English, thus rendering the study of nature pleasant even to children; while many divines, by clinging to the unmeaning and mischievous phraseology of ancient dreamers, render the study of religion repulsive, and the attainment of sound Christian knowledge almost impossible to the masses of mankind. And all these things become occasions of unbelief. "So long as Christian preachers and writers are limited so much to human creeds and systems, or to stereotyped phrases of any kind, and avail themselves so little of the popular diction of literature and of common life, so long must they repel many whom they might convince and win." Dr. Porter, President of Yale College.
5. Then again: the divisions of the Church, and the uncharitable spirit in which points of difference between contending sects are discussed, and the disposition sometimes shown by religious disputants to impugn each other's motives, to call each other offensive names, and to consign each other to perdition, are occasions of stumbling to some.
6. And again: many advocates of Christianity, more zealous than wise, say more about the Bible and Christianity than is true, and attempt to prove points which do not admit of proof; and by their unguarded assertions, and their failures in argument, bring the truth itself into discredit. Others use unsound arguments in support of the truth, and when men discover the unsoundness of the arguments, they are led sometimes to suspect the soundness of the doctrine in behalf of which they are employed. The pious frauds of ancient and modern fanatics have proved a stumbling-block to thousands.
Albert Barnes says, "There is no class of men that are so liable to rely on weak and inconclusive reasonings as preachers of the Gospel. Many a young man in a Theological Seminary is on the verge of infidelity from the nature of the reasoning employed by his instructor in defence of that which is true, and which might be well defended: and many a youth in our congregations is almost or quite a skeptic, not because he wishes to be so, but because that which is true is supported by such worthless arguments."
7. Again; theological students sometimes adopt erroneous principles or unwise methods of reasoning in their search after truth, and do not discover their mistake till they are landed in doubt and unbelief. They find certain principles laid down by men in high repute for science, and adopt them without hesitation, not considering that men of science are sometimes mad, fanatical infidels, and that they manufacture principles without regard to truth, for the simple purpose of undermining men's faith in God and religion. Writers on science of one school tell you, that in your study of nature, you must be careful never to admit the doctrine of final causes; or, in other words, that you must never entertain the idea that anything in nature was meant to answer any particular purpose. You must, say they, if you would be a true philosopher, shut out from your mind all idea of design or contrivance in the works of nature. You must just look at what is, and not ask what it is for. You may find wonderful adaptations of things to each other, all tending to happy results; but you must never suppose that any one ever designed or planned those adaptations, with a view to those happy results. You must confine yourself entirely to what you see, and never admit the thought of a Maker whom you do not see. You must limit your observations to what is done, and not dream of a Doer. You may see things tending to the diffusion of happiness, but must not suppose that there is a great unseen Benefactor, who gives them this blessed tendency. And if you feel in yourself a disposition to gratitude, you must treat it as a foolish, childish fancy, and suppress it as irrational.
A sillier or a more contemptible notion—a notion more opposed to true philosophy and common sense,—can hardly be conceived. How any one could ever have the ignorance or the impudence to propound such an unnatural and monstrous absurdity as a great philosophical principle, would be a mystery, if we did not know how infidelity perverts men's understandings, and, while puffing them up with infinite conceit of their own wisdom, transforms them into the most arrant and outrageous fools.
Yet this monstrous folly has found its way into books, and papers, and reviews, and, through them, into the minds of some Christian students; and when the madness of the notion is not detected, it destroys their faith, and makes them miserable infidels.
Some adopt the principle that reason is man's only guide,—that reason alone is judge of what is true and good, and that to reason every thing must be submitted, and received or rejected, done or left undone, as reason may decide. This sounds very plausible to many, and there is a sense in which it may be true; but there is a sense in which it is fearfully false; and the youth that adopts it, and acts upon it, will be likely to land himself in utter doubt, both with regard to religion and morals. There are numbers of cases in which reason is no guide at all,—in which instinct, natural affection, and consciousness are our only guides. You can never prove by what is generally called reason alone, that man is not a machine, governed entirely by forces over which he has no control. You cannot therefore prove by what certain philosophers call reason, that any man is worthy of reward or punishment, of praise or blame, of gratitude or of resentment; or that there is any such thing in men as virtue or vice, according to the ordinary sense of the words. The ablest logicians on earth, when they take reason alone as their guide, come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as liberty or moral responsibility, in the ordinary acceptation of the terms, but that all is fixed, that all is fate, from eternity to eternity. They accordingly come to the further conclusion, that there is no free, voluntary Ruler of the universe,—that there is no Almighty Judge and Rewarder,—that there is neither reward nor punishment, properly speaking, either in this world or in the world to come. They become atheists.
You can never prove by reason that a woman ought to love her own child better than the child of another woman. You cannot prove by reason that she ought to love it at all. You may say no children would be reared if mothers did not love their children, and even love them better than the children of other mothers. But how will you prove that children ought to be reared? Can you show that the mother will confer any advantage on her child, or secure any advantage to herself, or any one else, by rearing it? Can you prove that it will not be a torment to her,—that it will not bring her to want, and shame, and an untimely death? The fact is, a mother's love, a mother's partiality for her own child, is not a matter of reason. The hen loves her chickens, the she bear loves its cubs, the mother dog loves its whelps, and the ewe loves her lambs, without any regard to reason. Their affections and preferences are governed by something infinitely wiser than reason; infinitely higher, at least, than any reason that man can boast. And men love women, and women love men, and men and women marry and form new families, not at the bidding of reason, but under the influence of instincts or impulses that come from a wisdom infinitely higher than the wisdom of the wisest man on earth. And so it is with many of our beliefs. They are instinctive; and reason, when it becomes reasonable enough to deserve the name, will advise you to cherish those instinctive beliefs as your life, in spite of all the infidel philosophy and reasoning on earth.
But even honest and well-disposed men of science sometimes form bad, defective, or one-sided habits of thought and judgment unconsciously, which render it impossible for them to do justice either to Nature or Christianity as revelations of the character and government of God. And these faulty habits of thought and judgment, and the anti-Christian conclusions to which they lead, pass on from men of science to literary men; and literature is vitiated, and books and periodicals which should lead men to truth, cause them to err. Thus skeptical principles pervade society. They find advocates at times even among men who call themselves ministers of Christ. The consequence is, that well-disposed, and even pious young men, are perplexed, bewildered, and some who, like John the Baptist, were "burning and shining lights," become "wandering stars," and lose themselves, for a time at least, amidst the "blackness and darkness" of doubt and despair.
ANOTHER CAUSE OF UNBELIEF—BAD FEELING. THE AUTHOR'S CASE.
There are several other causes of doubt and unbelief which we might name, if we had time; but we have not. There is one however which we must notice, because it had considerable influence in our own case; we refer to the bad feeling which sometimes takes possession of the minds of Christians towards each other, or of the minds of ministers towards their brother ministers.
You are aware, perhaps, that if you scratch the skin, and introduce a little diseased animal matter to the blood, it will gradually spread itself through the system, and in time poison the whole body. And if you do not know this, you know, that if you take a little leaven, and place it in a mass of meal, and leave it there to work unchecked, it will in time leaven the whole lump. And as it is with things natural, so it is with things spiritual. If you allow a little leaven of bad feeling to get into your minds towards your fellow Christians or your brother ministers, and permit it to remain there, it will in time infect your whole soul, impair the action of all its faculties, and after alienating you from individuals, separate you first from the Church, and then from Christ and Christianity.
There is a passage in the Bible which says that judges are not to take gifts; and the reason assigned is, not that if a judge accepts a present he will, with his eyes open, wilfully condemn the innocent or acquit the guilty; but that "a gift blindeth the eyes," even "of the wise," so that he is no longer able to see clearly which is the guilty and which the guiltless party. And there is another passage in the Bible which says that "oppression driveth a wise man mad." The feeling a man has that he has been wickedly, cruelly treated, excites his mind so painfully and violently, that it is impossible for him to think well of the character or views of his oppressor, or of any party, institution, or system with which he may be connected.
As some friends of mine were canvassing for votes one day, previous to an election, they came upon a man who could not, for a time, say for which candidate he would vote. At length a thought struck him, and he said, "Who is John Myers going to vote for?" "Oh," said my friends, "he's going to vote for our man." "Then I'll vote for the other man," said he, "for I'm sure Myers will vote wrong." Myers had swindled him in a business transaction; and his feelings towards him were so strong, and of so unpleasant a kind, that he could not think anything right that Myers did, nor could he think anything wrong that he himself did, so long as he took care to go contrary to Myers.
It is very natural to smile at such weakness when we see it in others, and yet exhibit unconsciously the same weakness ourselves under another form. There are some Christians who, when their minister pleases them well, are quite delighted with his discourses. They are "marrow and fatness" to their souls. And every sermon he preaches seems better than the one that went before; and they feel as if they could sit under that dear good man for ever. But a change comes over their feelings with regard to him. While going his round of pastoral visits some day, he passes their door, but calls at the house of a richer neighbor a little lower down: or on visiting the Sunday-school, he pats someone's little boy on the head, and speaks to him kind and pleasant words, while he passes their little son unnoticed. He has no improper design in what he does; but it happens so; that is all. The idea of partiality never enters his mind. But they fancy he has got something wrong in his mind towards them; and it is certain now that they have got something wrong in their minds towards him. And now his sermons are quite changed. The "marrow and fatness" are all gone, and there is nothing left but "the husks which the swine should eat." And every sermon he preaches seems worse than the one which went before, until at length they get quite weary, and their only comfort is, if they be Methodists, that Conference will come some day, and they will have a change. And all this time the preacher is just the same good man he ever was, and his sermons are the same; only they are changed. They have misjudged him, and become the subjects of unhappy feeling, and are no longer capable of doing either him or his sermons justice.
And the longer the unhappy feeling is allowed to remain in their minds, the stronger it will become, and the more mischievous will it prove. After disabling or perverting their judgments with regard to their pastor, it will be in danger of separating them from the Church; and when once they get out of the Church into the outside world, no wonder if they make shipwreck both of faith, and of a good conscience.
And so it is continually. Our views of men's characters, talents, sentiments, are always more or less influenced by our feelings and affections. If we like a man very much, we look on his views in the most favorable light, and are glad to see anything like a reason for adopting them ourselves. We give his words and deeds the most favorable interpretation, and we rate his gifts and graces above their real value. On the other hand, if we dislike a man,—if we are led to regard him as an enemy, and to harbor feelings of resentment towards him, we look on what he says and does with distrust; we suspect his motives; we under-rate his talents, and are pleased to have an excuse for differing from him in opinion.
We see proofs of this power of feeling and affection over the judgment on every hand. The mother of that ordinary-looking and troublesome child thinks it the most beautiful and engaging little creature under heaven; while she wonders how people can have patience with her neighbor's child, which, in truth, is quite a cherub or an angel compared with her's. You know how it is with natural light. You sit inside an ancient cathedral, and the light from the bright shining sun streams in through the painted windows. Outside the cathedral the light is all pure white; but inside, as it falls upon the pulpit, the pillars, the pews and the people, it is purple, orange, violet, blue, red, or green, according to the color of the glass through which it passes. It is the same with moral or spiritual light; it takes the tint or hue of the painted windows of our passions and prejudices, our likes and dislikes, through which it enters our minds. The light that finds its way into men's minds, says Bacon, is never pure, white light; but light colored by the medium through which it passes. Look where we will, whether into books or into the living world, we see differences of opinion on men and things that can be accounted for on no other principle than that the judgments of people are influenced by their passions and feelings, their prejudices and interests. The Royalists looked on Cromwell through spectacles of hate and vengeance, and saw a monster of hypocrisy and blood. The Puritans looked at him through spectacles of revolutionary fanaticism, and saw a glorious saint and hero. The clergy looked on Nonconformists through conservative glasses, and saw a rabble of fanatics and rebels. The Nonconformists looked on the clergy through revolutionary glasses, and saw a host of superstitious formalists, and blind, persecuting Pharisees. The man who looks through the unstained glasses of impartiality, sees much that is good, and something that is not good, in all.
Who, that knows much of human nature, expects Catholics to judge righteously of Protestants, or Protestants to judge righteously of Catholics? Who, that knows anything of the world, expects revolutionary Radicals to do justice to the characters and motives of Conservatives, or ejected Irishmen to see anything in Englishmen but robbers and tyrants? I know that all this is great weakness, but where is the man that is not weak? The man who thinks himself free from this weakness, has probably a double share of it. The man who is really strong is some one who is keenly sensible of his weakness, and who feels that his sufficiency is of God. Weakness and humanity are one.
I dwell the longer on this point because, as I have already intimated, a right understanding of it will go far towards explaining the disastrous change which took place in my own mind with regard to Christianity. One great cause of my separation from the Church, and then of my estrangement from Christ, was the influence of bad feeling which took possession of my mind towards a number of my brother ministers.
ORIGIN OF THE UNHAPPY FEELING—CHARACTERISTICS OF THE AUTHOR'S MIND—RATIONALIZING TENDENCY.
How came I to be the subject of this bad feeling? I will tell you.
As a young minister I had two or three marked tendencies. One may be called a rationalizing tendency. I was anxious, in the first place, clearly to understand all my professed beliefs, and to be able, in the second place, to make them plain to others. I never liked to travel in a fog, wrapped round as with a blinding cloud, unable either to see my way, or to get a view of the things with which I was surrounded. I liked a clear, bright sky, with the sun shining full upon my path, and gladdening my eyes with a view of a thousand interesting objects. And so with regard to spiritual matters. I never liked to travel in theological fogs. They pressed on me at the outset of my religious life, on every side, hiding from my view the wonders and the glories of God's word and works; but I never rested in the darkness. I longed and prayed for light with all my soul, and sought for it with all my powers. Regarding the Bible as God's Book, given to man for his instruction and salvation, I resolved, by God's help, to find out both what it said and what it meant, on every important point of truth and duty.
1. I became sensible, very early in life, that the doctrines I had received from my teachers were, in some cases, inconsistent with each other, and that they could not therefore all be true; and I was anxious to get rid of this inconsistency, and to bring the whole of my beliefs into harmony with each other.
2. I was also anxious to bring my views into agreement with the teachings of Christ and His Apostles. I wished every article of my belief to rest, not on the word of man, but on the word of God. I believed it to be my duty to come as near to Christ as possible, both in my views and character. And I wished my style of preaching and teaching to be, like His, the perfection of plainness and simplicity. I felt that my chief mission was to the masses,—that I was called especially to preach and teach the Gospel to the poor; and it was my wish to be able to make it plain to people of the most defective education, and of the humblest capacity.
3. I was further wishful to see an agreement between the doctrines which I gathered from the Sacred Scriptures, and the oracles which came to me from the works of God in nature. If nature and Christianity were from the same All-perfect God, as I believed, their voices must be one. Their lessons of truth and duty must agree. They must have the same end and tendency. Christian precepts must be in harmony with man's mental and bodily constitution. They must be conducive to the development of all man's powers; to the perfection and happiness of his whole being. They must be friendly to the improvement of his condition. They must favor every thing that is conducive to his personal and domestic happiness, and to the social and national welfare of the whole human race. And the doctrines of Christianity must be in harmony with the constitution, and laws, and phenomena of the visible universe. If there be one Great, All-perfect Creator and Governor of the world and of man, then man and the universe, the universe and religion, science and revelation, philosophy and Christianity, the laws of nature and the laws of Christ, must all be one. I wanted to see this oneness, and to feel the sweet sense of it in my soul.
4. I wanted further to see the foundations on which my belief in God and Christ and in the Sacred Scriptures rested, that I might be able to justify my belief both to myself and to others. I wished to have the fullest evidence and assurance of the truth of Christianity I could get, that I might both feel at rest and happy myself, and be able to give rest and comfort to the souls of others.
5. With these objects in view I set to work. I prayed to God, the Great Father of lights, and the Giver of every good and perfect gift, to lead me into all truth, and to furnish me to every good work. I read the Bible with the greatest care. I searched it through and through. I studied it daily, desirous to learn the whole scope and substance of its teachings, on every point both of truth and duty. I marked on the margin of the pages all those passages that struck me by their peculiar clearness, and their fulness of important meaning. These passages I read over again and again, till I got great numbers of them off by heart. I gave each passage a particular mark according to the subject on which it treated. I then copied the whole of these passages into large Note Books, placing all that spake on any particular subject together. I also arranged the passages so far as I was able, in their natural order, that they might throw light on one another, and present the subject on which they treated, in as full and intelligible a light as possible. I divided the pages of my Note Books into two columns, placing the passages which favored one view of a subject in the first column, and those which seemed to favor a different view in the second. I placed in those Note Books passages on matters of duty, as well as on matters of truth. In this way I got nearly all the plainer and more important portions of the Bible arranged in something like systematic order. Having done this, I went through my Books, and put down in writing all that the passages plainly taught, and marked the bearing of their teachings on the various articles of my creed, with a view to bringing my creed, and the teachings of Scripture, into agreement with each other.
6. To help me in these my labors, and to secure myself as far as possible from serious error, I read a multitude of other books, on almost every subject of importance, by authors of almost all varieties of creeds. I read commentaries, sermons, bodies of divinity, and a host of treatises on various points. To the best of my ability I examined the Scriptures in the original languages, as well as in a number of translations, both ancient and modern, including several Latin and French versions, four German ones, and all the English ones that came in my way. I had a number of Lexicons, and of Theological and Bible Dictionaries of which I made free use. I went through the Commentaries of Baxter, Wesley and Adam Clarke with the greatest care, as well as through a huge and somewhat heterodox, but able and excellent work, published by Goadby, entitled, Illustrations of the Sacred Scriptures. I do not think I missed a single sentence in these commentaries, or passed unweighed a single word.
I read and studied the writings of Wesley generally, and the works of Fletcher, Benson and Watson. I read Hooker and Taylor also, and Wilkins, and Barrow, and Tillotson, and Butler, and Burnet, and Pearson, and Hoadley. I read the writings of Baxter almost continually. I went through, not only the whole of his voluminous practical works, but many of his doctrinal and controversial ones, including his Catholic Theology, his Aphorisms on Justification, his Confessions, and his most elaborate, comprehensive and wonderful work of all, his Methodus Theologiae, in Latin. In Baxter alone I had a world of materials for thought, on almost every religious and moral subject that can engage the mind of man. And on almost every subject of importance his thoughts seemed rich and wholesome, scriptural and rational in the highest degree. His Christian spirit held me captive, and I never got tired of his earnest, eloquent, and godly talk. Even the old and endless controversies on which he spent so much time and strength, were often rendered interesting by the honesty of his heart, by the abundance of his charity, by the moderation of his views, and by the never-failing good sound sense of his remarks. None of the works I read had such a charm for me as those of Baxter, and no other religious writer exerted so powerful and lasting an influence either on my head or heart. Taylor was too flowery, and Barrow too wordy, and Tillotson was rather cold and formal; yet I read them all with profit, and with a great amount of pleasure. Hooker I found a wonder, both for excellency of style and richness of sentiment; and his piety and wisdom, his candor and his charity, have never been surpassed since the days of Christ and His Apostles. And Hoadley too I liked, and Butler, and Thomas a Kempis, and William Law. And then came Bolton and Howe, and Doddridge and Watts. Then Penn, and Barclay, and Clarkson, and Sewell, and Hales, and Dell caught my attention, giving me interesting revelations of Quaker thought and feeling.
And I was edified by Lactantius and Chrysostom, the most eloquent, rational and practical of the Christian Fathers. By and by came Priestley and Price, and Dr. John Taylor, and W. E. Channing, and a host of others of the modern school of heterodox writers. I also read a number of celebrated French authors, including Bossuet and Bourdaloue, Flechier and Massillon, Pascal and Fenelon, and the eloquent, Protestant preacher and author, M. Saurin. I read the principal works both of Catholics and Protestants, of the Fathers and Reformers, of Churchmen and Dissenters, of Quakers and Mystics, of Methodists and Calvinists, of Unitarians and Infidels.
I read several works on Law and Government, including Puffendorf's Law of Nature, Grotius on the Laws of Peace and War, Bodin on Government, Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws, Blackstone's Commentaries, and Jeremy Taylor's Ductor Dubitantium. I had read works on Anatomy, Physiology and Medicine, when I could get hold of them, from the time when I was only twelve years old. I never went far into any other sciences, yet I studied, to some extent, Astronomy, Geology, Physical Geography, Botany, Natural History, and Anthropology. I read Wesley's publication on Natural Philosophy, and I gave more or less attention to every work on science and natural philosophy that came in my way. Works on natural religion and natural theology, in which science was taught and used in subservience to Christian truth and duty, I read whenever I could get hold of them. They interested me exceedingly. For works on Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, I had not the least regard. They seemed to have no tendency to help me in the work in which I was engaged, and I had no desire to talk respectable nonsense on such subjects. I was fond of Ecclesiastical and Civil History, and read most greedily such works as threw light on the progress of society in learning, science, and useful arts; in freedom, morals, religion and government. I read many of the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the history of the wonderful periods in which they flourished. I was especially fond of Cicero, Seneca, and Epictetus. All subjects bearing on the great interests of mankind, and all works revealing the workings of the human mind and the laws of human nature, seemed to me to bear important relations to religion and the Bible; and the writings of the great philosophers, lawyers, and historians, appeared to be almost as much in my line as Baxter's Christian Directory, or Wesley's Notes on the New Testament.
Tales of wars and intrigues, and of royal and aristocratic vices and follies I hated. Yet I was interested in accounts of religious controversies, and read with eagerness, though with pain and horror, the tragic and soul-harrowing stories of the deadly conflicts between Christian piety and anti-Christian intolerance. Above all I loved well-written books on the beneficial influence of Christianity on the temporal interests and the general happiness of mankind. I liked good biographies, especially of celebrated students, great philosophers, and remarkable Christian philanthropists. Of works of fiction I read very few, and evermore still fewer as I got older, until at length I came to view them generally as a great nuisance. There are few, I suppose, that can say they read the whole, not only of Wesley's works, but of his Christian Library, in fifty volumes; yet I went through the whole, though one of the books was so profound, or else so silly, that I could not find one sentence in it that I could properly understand. I read the greater part of the books of my friends. I went through nearly the whole library of a village about two miles distant from my native place. My native place itself could not boast a library in those days. I read scores, if not hundreds of books that taught me nothing but the ignorance and self-conceit of the writers, and the various forms of literary and religious insanity to which poor weak humanity is liable.
There was a large old Free Library at Newcastle-on-Tyne, left to the city by a celebrated clergyman, which contained all the Fathers, all the Greek and Roman Classics, all the more celebrated of the old Infidels, all the old leading skeptical and lawless writers of Italy, and France, and Holland, all the great old Church of England writers, and all the leading writers of the Nonconformists, Dissenters, and Heretics of all kinds. To this library I used to go, day after day, and stay from morning to night, reading some of the great authors through, and examining almost all of them sufficiently to enable me to see what there was in each, that I had not met with in the rest. Here I read Hobbes and Machiavel, Bolingbroke and Shaftesbury, Tindal and Chubb. Here I first saw the works of Cudworth and Chillingworth, and here too I first found the entire works of Bacon and Newton, of Locke and Boyle. Here also I read the works of some of the older defenders of the faith. Grotius on the truth of the Christian religion I had read much earlier. I had used it as a school book, translating it both out of Latin into English, and out of English back into Latin, imprinting it thereby almost word for word upon my memory. I had also read the work of his commentator on the causes of incredulity. Leland on the deistical writers, and Paley's Evidences, and others, I read after. But in this great old library I met with numbers of interesting and important works that I have never met with since. And here, in the dimly lighted antiquated rooms, I used to fill my mind with a world of facts, and thoughts, and fancies, and then go away to meditate upon them while travelling on my way, or sitting in my room, or lying on my bed. Day and night, alone and in company, these were the things which filled my mind and exercised my thoughts.
And having a rather retentive memory, and considerable powers of imagination, I was able at times to bring almost all the things of importance which I had met with in my reading, before my mind, and compare them both with each other, and with all that was already in my memory. And whatever appeared to me most rational, most scriptural, I treasured for future use, allowing the rest to drift away into forgetfulness.
No one can imagine the happiness I found in this my search after truth, except those who have experienced the like. I seemed at times to live in a region of the highest and divinest bliss. Every fresh discovery of truth, every detection of old error, every enlargement of my views, brought unspeakable rapture; and had it not been for the narrow-mindedness of some of my friends, the restraints of established creeds, and the thought of the trials which my mental revels might some day bring on me and my family, my life would have been a heaven on earth.
Perhaps I read too much, or too greedily and variously. Would it not in any case have been better for me to have refrained from reading the writings of such a host of heretics, infidels, and mere natural philosophers? It is certain that what I attempted was too much for my powers, and too vast for one man's life. But I was not sufficiently conscious of the infinitude of truth, or of the narrow limits of my powers, or of the infinite mysteries of which humanity and the universe are full. And my desire for knowledge was infinite, and my appetite was very keen, and I was so desirous to be right on every subject bearing on the religion of Christ, and on the great interests of mankind, that nothing that I could do seemed too much if it seemed likely to help me in the attainment of my object.
Then I had no considerate and enlightened guide; no friend, no colleague, with a father's heart, to direct me in my studies or my choice of books. There was one minister in the Body to which I belonged that might have given me good counsel, if he had been at hand, but he and I were never stationed in the same neighborhood. And he had suffered so much on account of his superior intelligence and liberal tendencies, that he might have felt unwilling to advise me freely. The preachers generally could not understand me, and they had no sympathy with my eager longings for religious knowledge. They could not comprehend what in the world I could want beyond their own old stereotyped notions and phrases, and the comfortable provision made for the supply of my temporal wants. Why could I not check my thinking, enjoy my popularity, and rejoice in the success of my labors? And when I could not take their flippant counsels, they had nothing left but hints at unpleasant consequences. There was nothing for me therefore, but to follow the promptings of my own insatiate soul, and travel on alone in the fear of God, hoping that things would get better, and my prospects grow brighter by and by.
So I moved on in my own track, still digging for truth as for silver, and searching for it as for hidden treasure. And I worked unceasingly, and with all my might. I lost no time. I hated pleasure parties, and all kinds of amusements. My work was my amusement. I hated company, unless the subject of conversation could be religion, or something pertaining to it. When obliged to go out and take dinner, or tea, or supper, I always took a book or two with me, and if the company were not inclined to spend the time in useful conversation, I would slip away into some quiet room, or take a walk, and spend my time in reading. I always read on my walks and on my journeys, if the weather was fair, and on some occasions when it was not fair. My mind was always on the stretch. I had no idea that I needed rest or recreation. It never entered into my mind that I could get to the end of my mental strength, and when I was actually exhausted,—when I had wearied both body and mind to the utmost, so that writing and even reading became irksome to me, I still accused myself of idleness, instead of suspecting myself of weariness. I wonder that I lived. If my constitution had not been sound and elastic to the last degree, I should have worn myself out, and been silent in the dust, more than thirty years ago.
7. All the time that I was laboring to correct and enlarge my views of Christian truth and duty, I was endeavoring to improve my way of speaking and writing. I wished, of course, to be able to speak and write correctly and forcibly, but what I longed for most of all, was to be able to speak with the greatest possible plainness and simplicity to the poorer and less favored classes. If there were things in Christianity that were inexplicable mysteries, I had no wish to meddle with them at all; if there was nothing but what was explicable, I wished to be able to speak in such a manner as to make the whole subject of religion plain to them. My belief was that there were not any inexplicable mysteries in Christianity; that though there were doctrines in Christianity which had been mysteries in earlier times, they were mysteries now no longer, but revelations; that the things which were inexplicable mysteries, belonged to God, and that none but things that were revealed belonged to us. My impression was, that all things spiritual could be made as plain to people of common sense and honest hearts, as things natural; that all that was necessary to this end, was first to separate from Christianity all that was not Christianity, and secondly, to translate Christianity out of Latin and Greek, Hebrew and Gibberish, into the language of the common people.
To qualify myself for this work of translation was the next great object of all my studies. Paul regarded the unnecessary use of unknown tongues in the assemblies of the Church, as a great nuisance. He demanded that everything said in those assemblies, should be spoken in a language that all could understand. Whether men prayed, or sang, or preached, he insisted that they should do it in such a manner as to make themselves intelligible. His remarks on this subject are the perfection of wisdom, and deserve more attention from religious teachers than they are accustomed to receive. Paul's wish was, that Christians should not only all speak the same things, but that they should speak them in the same way, so that they might all be able to understand each other, and that outsiders might be able to understand them all. "Above all gifts," says he, "covet the gift of plain and intelligible speaking. Never use an unknown tongue so long as you can use a known one. He that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men but unto God: for no man understandeth him. He may talk about very good things, but no one is the better for his talk. But he that speaketh in a known tongue can be understood by all; and all are instructed, and comforted, and strengthened. And even God can understand a known tongue as well as an unknown one. He that speaketh in an unknown tongue may edify himself perhaps; but he that speaketh in a known one, edifieth the Church. I do not grudge you your unknown tongues, but I had a great deal rather you would use a known one; for greater is he that speaketh in a known one, than he that speaketh in an unknown one. True greatness does not consist in saying or doing things wonderful; but in saying and doing things useful,—in talking and acting in a loving, condescending, self-sacrificing spirit, with a view to the comfort and welfare of our brethren. Suppose I were to come to you speaking in tongues that you did not understand, what good should I do you, unless I should translate what I said into a tongue you could understand? And why should I say a thing twice over when saying it once would do as well, and even better? Everything should be made as plain as possible from the first. When you have made things as plain as you can, there will be some that will find it as much as they can do to catch your meaning. If you talk in an unknown tongue they cannot get at your meaning at all, but only sit, and stare, and sigh. Some poor silly souls may admire and applaud you; for there are always some who, when they hear a man that they cannot understand, will cry out, What a great preacher! But what good or sensible man would wish for the praise of such creatures as those? Talk intelligibly. Talk so that folks can tell what you are talking about. If you have nothing worth saying, hold your tongues. If you have something worth saying, say it so that people can understand it. Make everything as clear as possible. We might as well be without tongues as talk unintelligibly. Even things without life, giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. There are, no one knows how many voices in the world; and none of them without signification. The voices of birds and the voices of beasts are endless in variety; yet each has its own distinct intelligible meaning. All creatures, though destitute of language like that of man, make themselves properly understood by their mates, their kindred, and their associates. They even make themselves intelligible to men. Talk of great preachers;—why the man that cannot or will not preach so as to make himself understood, is smaller, lower, less in the esteem of God, and of good, sensible, Christian men and women, than the lowest animal, or the smallest insect, on the face of the earth. Every sheep that bleats, every ox that lows, every ass that brays, every bird that sings, and every goose that gabbles, is more of a sage, if not more of a saint, than the great preachers! The things so-called by a certain class of simpletons, are about the most pitiable, if not the most blameable creatures, in all God's universe. What then is the upshot of what I am saying? It is this. Whether I sing, or pray, or talk, I will make myself understood. I thank my God, I can speak with tongues more than you all; and I do speak with them when it is necessary to do so in order to make myself understood: but in the Church, I had rather speak five words in a tongue and a style that my hearers can understand, that by my voice I may teach others, than ten thousand in an unknown tongue."
And so the great, good, common-sense Apostle goes on.
My wish and purpose were to carry out his principles to the farthest possible extent. If I had tried hard, I could have preached in Latin. With a little more effort I could have preached in Greek. I could have preached in the ordinary, high-sounding, Frenchified, Latinized, mongrel style, without an effort. It required an effort to keep clear of the abomination. And I made the effort. I wanted to feel when speaking, that I had not only myself a proper understanding of what I was talking about, but that I was conveying correct and clear ideas of it to the minds of my hearers. To utter words which I did not understand, or words which I could not make my hearers understand, was a thing I could not endure; and to this day, the very idea of such a thing excites in me a kind of horror. I had no ambition to preach what were called great sermons, or to be what was called a great preacher. My great desire was not to astonish or confound people, but to do them good; to convey religious truth to their minds in such a way, and so to impress it on their hearts, that they might be converted, edified, and saved.
When I first began to preach I had a cousin who was commencing his career as a minister at the same time. He was ambitious to shine, and to astonish his hearers by a show of learning. He knew nothing of Latin and Greek, but he was fond of great high-sounding words of Greek and Latin origin. He carried about with him a pocket dictionary, which he used for the purpose of turning little words into big ones, and common ones into strange ones. My taste was just the contrary. My desire was to be as simple as possible. Like my companion, I often carried about with me a pocket dictionary, but the end for which I used it was, to help me to turn big words into little ones, and strange and hard ones into common and easy ones. And whenever I had to consult a dictionary in translating Latin, or Greek, or any other language, into English, I always took the simplest and best known words I could find to give the meaning of the original. My cousin's desire to shine betrayed him at times into very ridiculous blunders. I once heard him say, after having spent some time in explaining his text, "But that I may devil-hope the subject a little more fully, I would observe, that the words are mephitical." He, of course, meant to say, metaphorical, figurative, not mephitical which means of a bad smell. My plan secured me against such mistakes.
To assist me in gaining a knowledge of the true meaning, and of the right use of words, and to correct and simplify my style as much as possible, I read whatever came in my way on grammar and philology, on rhetoric and logic. I also collected a number of the best English dictionaries, including a beautiful copy of Johnson's great work in two thick quarto volumes. I read and studied the works of nearly all our great poets, from Spenser and Shakespeare, down to Cowper and Burns. I read two or three later ones. I had already committed to memory the whole, or nearly the whole, of the moral songs of Dr. Watts; and many of them keep their places in my memory to the present day. And though it may seem incredible to some, I actually committed to memory every hymn in the Wesleyan Hymn Book. I never knew them all off at one time, but I got them all off in succession. And I never forgot the better, truer, simpler, sweeter ones. I can repeat hundreds of them still, with the exception of here and there a stanza or two. And I committed to memory all the better portion of the new hymns introduced into the hymn book by the Methodist New Connection. And I committed to memory choice pieces of poetry without number. I read Shakespeare till I could quote many of his best passages, including nearly all his soliloquies, and a number of long conversations, as readily as I could quote the sacred writings.
I read all Bunyan's works. I could tell the story of his Pilgrim from beginning to end. I read Robinson Crusoe, and some of the other works of Defoe. I read Addison and Johnson, Goldsmith and Swift. To get at the origin and at the primitive meaning of words, I studied French and German, as well as Latin and Greek. When I met with passages in English authors that expressed great truths in a style that was not to my taste, I used to translate them into my own style, just as I did fine passages from Latin, Greek, or French authors. I also translated poetical passages into prose. I tried sometimes to translate things into the language of children, and in some cases I succeeded. I did my best to keep in mind how I felt, and what I could understand, when I was a child and a boy, and endeavored to keep my style as near as I could to the level of my boyish understanding. My first superintendent did not approve of my plan. "The proper way," said he, "is, not to go down to the people; but to compel the people to come up to you." He was fond of a swelling, high-sounding, long-winded style. How far he succeeded in bringing people up to himself, I cannot say, but I recollect once hearing a pupil of his talk a whole hour without uttering either a thought or a feeling that was worth a straw. An old woman, with whom he had once lived, and with whom he was a great favorite, said to me after the service, 'Well, how did you like our young man?' 'He talked away,' said I. 'I think he did,' she answered, 'he grows better and better. I couldn't understand him.' His teacher, my superintendent, published a volume of sermons; but I never met with anybody that had read them. I read one or two of them myself, and was astonished;—perhaps not so much astonished as something else,—to find, that at the end of one of his tall-worded, long-winded, round-about sentences, he contradicted what he had said at the beginning.
CHANGES IN THE AUTHOR'S VIEWS.
My studies led me to make considerable changes both in my views and way of speaking.
1. With regard to my views. I found that some of the doctrines which I had been taught as Christian doctrines, were not so much as hinted at by Christ and His Apostles,—that some doctrines which Christ and His Apostles taught with great plainness, I never had been taught at all; and that some of the doctrines of Christ and His Apostles which I had been taught, I had been taught in very different forms from those in which they were presented in the New Testament.
I found that some doctrines which I had been taught as doctrines of the greatest importance, were never so much as alluded to in the whole Bible, while in numbers of places quite contrary doctrines were taught. While unscriptural doctrines were inculcated as fundamental doctrines of the Gospel, some of the fundamental doctrines themselves were not only neglected, but denounced as grievous heresies.
Many passages of Scripture which were perfectly plain when left to speak out their own meaning, had been used so badly by theologians, that they had become unintelligible to ordinary Christians. While professing to give the passages needful explanations, they had heaped upon them impenetrable obscurations. Words that, as they came from Jesus, were spirit and life, had been so grievously perverted, that they had become meaningless or mischievous.