Page images
PDF
EPUB

worship, however vague, equivocal, or comprehensive, can afford a link to join such hostile extremes : or provide them with

a loop or hinge to hang their doubts on,' while they repair, in all the nakedness of pure nature, to offer their united sacrifices at the fame altar, and make their responses to the same priest. It is contrary to the nature of man-it is contrary to the exprefs defignation both of the Jewish and Christian religion: and notwithstanding our Author's experiments and discoveries, we are at length fully convinced, after mature observation, that his project is a trial of mere curiofity, and chiefly affects as a novelty.

Mr. Williams's capital mistake lies in fupposing, that what holds good in society at large, holds equally good in a religious community; and that nothing ought to bound the one which doth not limit the other : but he concludes too haftily, from premises that will be granted by very few, whether believers or infidels.

In the support of civil life, the most opposite professions of religion may be united for the common good by univerfal principles. Here, even the Atheift may be a useful member. He may be such on the ground of self-love. Society hath no farther claims on him, than it may poffibly be for his own interest to obey. The laws of civil life ought then to be as comprehenfive as the good of society will admit: and Government acts a wise, as well as a benevolent part, when it applies all its members to the best ufe, and makes even the most difimilar profeffions administer to the general welfare and peace of the community. Thefe maxims of policy were unknown to, or even unheeded by our forefathers. They imagined, that toleration, instead of lessening, would encrease diffentions in the state :-chat good subjects, and good churchmen meant the same thing, and could not be disunited without the ruin of both characters. To preserve their alliance, the Act of Uniformity was paffed. A fair trial was made of this project. We know how it succeeded.

As to Mr. Williams's project—which he hath now extended, by a fingular act of grace, to the utmost extreme of infidelity, we do not, on the most ferious reflection we can form of it, see its abfolute necessity, or even its fingular utility, on the broad ground of civil polity. The state hath saved all the trouble ; and by mutual indulgence, dependence, and obligation, allowed and strengthened by Government, all the ends of political life are fufficiently secured and provided for: Now these, we apprehend, are Mr. Williams's sole objects.

Religion, that derives its capital motives from the Omnisci. ence of the Deity, and ends not in a momentary glow of ada miration, excited by a view of the works of nature, but looks

forwards

forwards to a future state, can be no part of an institution which includes Atheists in the number of its votaries.

Mr. Williams acknowledges, that ' it is not material to his purpose, whether the Atheist exclude the word, God, from his religious dialect, and ascribe all we see to nature, necessity, or chance it is the character only of necessity, of chance, or of the deified forms of human imagination, which can affect us.'

Undoubtedly words, in themselves, are of little consequence. It is the ideas they excite that are principally to be attended to. Now, we ask, What idea the most speculative and metaphyfical Atheist can be supposed to affociate with the word, CHANCE? Or on what ground it can be imagined he should pay any adoration to the character of Chance? Or what effect the contemplation of it can poflibiy have in improving his mind and morals? How, we ask, can the Atheist, who ascribes the productions of the universe, and all the operations of nature, to Chance, regard this original cause, as an object of delight, gratitude, and virtuous resolutions,' (as Mr. Williams expresses himself) or with any intention to act, in his little sphere, in some degree, according to the great principle he hath been contemplating?'-To adore Chance-to be grateful to Chance, are solecisms shocking to common sense, and which cannot be reconciled, even by the ingenuity of Mr. Williams. Perhaps he may tell us, 'that we do not understand him: but, in our view, nothing can throw a stronger ridicule on his all-comprehensive institution, than by supposing a number of persons allembled in Margaret-Street, to join in devotion and thanksgiving—fome to God-lome to Nature-a third class to Neceffity, and a fourth to Chance :- fome to a Principle allperfect and all-wise: and others, to a Being whose works they imagine are not always as they might be: and are not ordered according to their ideas of perfect wisdom and goodness.' Yet Mr. Wiliams is ready to accommodate them all: and does not see any good reason why those sceptics, who are ready to find fault with the ways of God, should not yet adore him: for, putting himself in their fituation, and supposing that he had i nbibed their principles, yet (says he) as it is wonderful that things should be as well as they are, and that in the sum of existence, there should be so much happiness as to make it defirable-this would claim my respectful attention and this attention would be all the religion of which I should be capable.

" Now this is worshipful fociety,"-as Shakespeare, the true spriest of nature," humorously sings :- where folks may adore God, or adore without a God: where they may afcend on Platonic pinions to the * to nahor

" The first good, first perfe&t, and first fair:".

* See Williams's Morto,

or reasong downwards till they doubt of his goodness and perfection, and then fink devotion into respectful attention."

We have thus, without rathness, and on the grounds of obfervation and experience, given our free sentiments on the Institution in Margaret-Street:' and if we were inclined to appeal to any authority to countenance our freedom, it should be to Mr. Williams himself, who tells us, that ' all thoughts, wrong as well as right, should be freely communicated.'-We hope, our freedom hath been tempered with moderation and decency: though if we were inclined to be abusive, we might plead his example to give a fanction to calumny : for he says, without scruple or referve, that' preaching keeps up an order of men who are under a necessity of diffembling their failings and faults, and, confequently, of tainting their own minds, and those of their hearers, with hypocrisy:-a vice almost inseparable from an assembly under the direction of a priest, whether called religious, moral, or sentimental.?

The clergy were first indebted to the politeness of Mr. Hume for this reflection on the character of their order, Mr. Wil. liams bears his testimony to the juftness of the reflection. This must give it double credit ; for having been of the order himself--and ftill not satisfied (he tells us out of his employment, he must be a competent judge of the vice which naturally taints the mind of a priest.

As we have now done justice to our impartiality, we proceed to discharge another obligation; and that is, to do justice to the fingular merit of this lively and most ingenious Moralist. His Lectures have afforded us uncommon entertainment: for wild as some of this Gentleman's notions are, and deficient as his discourses may be in point of logical arrangement, yet'peculiar beauties are scattered through almost every page of his work. He is entitled to this acknowledgment: and we could not refuse it, without doing manifest injustice to his abilities. We do not fay, that the excellencies of these Lectures will atone for their errors and defects; but this we must say, that these excellencies are so various and striking, that they must appear in spite of every thing that tends to obscure them.

The Lectures are in number forty-fix. They are, in general, prefaced with a text of Scripture : though some few are introduced with a motto from the moral writings of the Ethnic sages. This was confiftent enough with his plan, which excludes the prescriptive authority of revelation ; and the ruling principle of which, is, to adopt a maxim, not from its mode of recommendation, but from its intrinsic excellence, founded on cominon nature, and which, of consequence, would be as much a

$ See Pope's Dunciad.

truth.

truth in the mouth of a Heathen as in the mouth of an Apoftle. -His apology for omitting sometimes a text of Scripture by way of a motto to his discourse, forms a part of his introduction to the fourth Lecture, on the Knowledge of the Deity.'

''Those persons' (says he) who are skilled in the mysteries of verbal criticism and mythological interpretation; who can write pages on a Greek particle, and deduce doctrines from the equivocations of a Hebrew word, should never address an audience but from a text, as they do sufficient honour to themselves, and to their facred oracles, by dwelling on fyllables and letters, and spending years in explaining and preaching on what was spoken in a few hours. But the person who hath the desire and ambition of producing moral effects in the minds of his hearers, after the manner of those Philosophers, and those Apostles, who led the antient world to knowledge and virtue, by alluding to paffages in their works, may betray so much of his design as to defeat it, or subject himself to a kind of ridicule which might prevent his success?

This paffage is not happy for its perspicuity :--but it is frequently the custom with the first spirits of human nature' (to use Mr. Williams's expression) to mean more than meets the ear. But we Reviewers are often in a hurry, and if we cannot catch a meaning as we run on, we cannot afford time to turn back, and trace it out through any intricate or doubtful paths.- Nevertheless, Mr. Williams knows where he is, and what he is about; and he informs us, that these considerations will induce him often to address his audience, without the inconvenient, and sometimes absurd custom, of prefixing a text of Scripture.' " Those of my hearers' (continues he) who are intelligent and candid, will remember these things as my reasons : those who are otherwise, will represent me with the fame justice, and the same truth, as they do in regard to opinions and doctrines which they declare me at enmity with, because I never mention them. My views are not to be promoted by contentions and quarrels, though it be very poffible my in: tereft may. I regard furious men, even under religious pretences, as wild beasts: and nothing but neceffity Thall ever throw me in their way.'

Mr. Williams begins his series of Lectures with a discourse on public worship. It is a desultory, but an ingenious and fpirited essay. He doth not reason according to the forms of logic; nor doth he declaim according to the rules of the pulpit : but he frequently doch better than the mere man of logic, or the mere man of the pulpit is capable of doing. -We know, we shall please all Readers of taste and candour by the failowing extract, B 4

6 The

The great principle which animated our brave and virtuous anceftors; which tin&tured with sublimity the savageness of their virtues; impelled them to actions of disinterested patriotism; and gave wisdom to their legislation and policy, at which we are astonished—was religion. Their descendants improved in all the arts of life; intelligent in the principles and interests of society; with characters and names which science and philosophy will hand down to eternity--are advancing to a political decrepitude and destruction from a puerile and wretched irreligion.--Religion hath been laid hold of by the State as an expedient to serve its purposes; not generally and nobly countenanced as the means of making men happy, by making them virtuous. A variety of sects have sprung up, who have not only relinquished the advantages held out by the fate, but have withstood its power. Here genuine and virtuous Free-thinkers might have hoped for shelter, if they had not spirit enough to affert their own rights. No. All denominations of Disfenters have founded their claims on the nature of their faith; and no sect hath asserted the indisputable right of man, not only to think for himself, but to disturb the sacred repose of the public, so far as to attempt its improvement and advantage. All religious contentions have been on the comparative excellence of theological tenets. An Arian or a Socinian might venture some inconvenience from a Calvinist or an Ara minian. Not merely because he felt himself entitled to a com, mon right of human nature ; but because his faith was more rational, or more scriptural : more worthy to be the established belief, and to receive the dignities and emoluments of the church. Let any of these denominations be put into power, and we only exchange tyrants; and have new names and tenets to which we muft facrifice our integrity and liberty.--The warfare of religious fects has had one effect, however, in producing what they never intended--a spirit of universal toleration."

These reflections are not unsupported by factor at least, strong analogy. We know how the Arians became persecutors, in their turn, when the power of the state gave them an advantage over the Athanafians : and that Socinus discovered more a want of power than a want of inclination to crush the sects which tended to weaken his intereft. His conduct toward Francis Davidis hath met with apologists, who, like the apologifts for Calvin in the matter of Servetus, bave stretched their ingenuity to foften and colour it. But whatever respect we owe to the goodness of their design, we are not insensible of the weakness of its execution. The great heads of fects always have historians among their difciples, who are ever ready to gloss over what cannot be vindicated. Hence we are reized

and

« PreviousContinue »