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ticular tenets in religion, have attained to that cool, unbiassed tem. per of mind, in consequence of becoming more indifferent to religion in general, and to all the modes and doctrines of it.” Could this acknowledgment be considered as the mistake of an unguarded moment, it might be overlooked : but it is a fact ; a fact which, as Dr. Priestley himself expresses it, “ cannot be denied;* a fact therefore, which must needs prove a millstone about the neck of his system. That doctrine, be it what it may, to which an indifference to religion in general is friendly, cannot be the gospel, or any thing pertaining to it, but something very near akin to Infidelity.
If it be objected, that the immoral character of persons, previously to their embracing a set of principles, ought not to be alleged against the moral tendency of those principles, because, if it were, Christianity itself would be dishonoured by the previous character of many of the primitive Christians ;-it is replied, there are two circumstances necessary to render this objection of any force: First, the previous character of the convert, however wicked it may have been, must have no influence on his conversion, Secondly ; this conversion must have such an influence on hiin, that, whatever may have been his past character, his future life shall be devoted to God. Both these circumstances existed in the case of the primitive Christians; and if the same could be said of the converts to Socinianism, it is acknowledged, that all objections from this quarter ought to give way. But this is not the case. Socinian converts are not only allowed, many of them, to be men of no religion ; but the want of religion, as we have seen already, is allowed to have influenced their conversion. Nor is this all : it is allowed, that their conversion to these principles has no such influence upon them as to make any material change in their character for the better. This is a fact tacitly admitted by Mr. Belsham, in that he goes about to account for it, by alleg. ing what was their character previously to their conversion. It is true, he talks of this being the case “only for a time,” and, at length, these converts are to “have their eyes opened ; are to feel the benign influence of their principles, and demonstrate the
* Discourses on Various Subjects, p. 95.
excellency of their faith by the superior dignity and worth of their character.” But these, it seems like “ the annihilation of death” and the conversion of Jews and Mahometans by the Socinian doctrine, are things yet to come. *
Since the publication of the first edition of these Letters, a report has been circulated, that Dr. Priestley has been misrepresented by the quotatiún in page 55, which also was referred to at the commencement of the Preface. Dr. P. it has been said, in the place from whence the passage is taken, was not commending a total indifference to religion, bu! the contrary; and his meaning was not that such a disregard to all religion is a beller qualification for discerning truth than a serious temper of mind, but that it is preferable to that bigoted altachment to a systen, which some people discover.
That Dr. P.'s leading design was to commend a total indifference to religion, was never suggested. I suppose this, on the contrary, was to commend good discipline among the Unitarians, for the purpose of promoting religious zeal His words are, (accounting for the want of zeal among them,) “It cannot be denied, that many of those who judge so truly concerning particular tenets in religion, have attained to that cool, unbiassed temper of mind, in consequence of becoming more indifferent to religion in general, and to all the modes and doctrines of it. Though, therefore, they are in a more favourable situation for distinguishing between truth and falsehood, they are not likely to acquire a zeal for what they conceive to be the truth.”
The leading design of Dr. P. in this passage, it is allowed, was to recommend good discipline, as friendly to zeal; and as a previous indifference to religion in general was unfavourable to that temper of mind which he wished to inspire, in this view he is to be understood as blaming it. Yet, in an incidental manner he as plainly acknowledges it to have been favourable for distinguishing between truth and falsehood; and, in this view, he must be understood as commending it. That he does commend it, though in an incidental way, is manifest from his attributing their judging so truly concerning particular tenets in religion to it; and that, not merely as an occasion, but as an adequate cause, producing a good effect: rendering the mind more cool and unbiassed than it was before. To suppose that Dr. P. does not mean to recommend indifference to religion in general, as friendly to truth, (though unfriendly to. seal,) is supposing him not to mean what he says.
As to the question, Whether Dr. P. means to compare an indifference to religion in general with a serious temper of mind, or with a spirit of bigotry? It cannot be the latter, unless he considers the characters of whom he speaks, as having been formerly bigoted in their attachment to modes and forms: for he is not comparing them with other people, but with them selves at a former period So long as they regarded religion in general, according to his account, they
But it will be pleaded, Though many who go over to Socinianism are men of no religion, and, continue to “ lean to a life of
were in a less favourable situation for distinguishing between truth and falschood, than when they came to disregard it. Dr. P.'s own account of these characters seems to agree with mere men of the world, rather than with religinus bigots. They were persons, he says, who troubled themselves very lit. tle about religion, but who had been led to turn their attention to the dispute concerning the person of Christ, and, by their natural good sense had decided upon it. To this effect he writes in pages 96, 97, of his Discourses on Va. rious Suhjects. Now, this is far from answering to the character of religious bigots, or of those who at any time have sustained that character.
But, waving this, let us suppose, that the regard which those characters bore towards religion in general, was the regard of bigots. In this case, they were a kind of Pharisees, attached to modes and forms which blinded their minds from discovering the truth. Afterwards, they approached nearer to the Sadducees, became more indifferent to religion in general, and to all the modes and doctrines of it. The amount of Dr. P.'s position would then be, That the spirit of a Sadducee is preferable, with respect to discerning truth, to that of a Pharisee, possessing more of a cool, unbiassed temper of mind. The reply that I should make to this is, That neither Pharisees por Sadducees possess that temper of mind of which Dr. P. speaks, but are both a generation of vipers, different in some respects, but equally malignant towards the true gospel of Christ; and that the humble, the candid, the serious, and the upright inquirers after truth are the only persons likely to find it. And this is the substance of what I advanced in the first page of the Preface, which has been charged as a misrepresentation. I never suggested that Dr. P. was comparing the characters in question with the serious or the candid ; but rather, that
et the comparison respect whom it might, his attributing an unbiassed temper of mind to men, in consequence of their becoming indifferent to religion in general, was erroneous ; for that he who is not a friend to religion in any mode, is an enemy to it in all modes, and ought not to be complimented as being in a favourable situation for distinguishing between truth and falsehood.
A writer in the Monthly Review has laboured to bring Mr Belsham off in the same manner; but, instead of affording him any relief, he has betrayed the cause he has espoused, and made Mr. B. reason in a manner unworthy of his abilities. “We apprehend,” says this writer, “that Mr. B. does not mean to assert, nor even to intimate, that indifferenoe to religious practice prepared the mind for the admission of that religious truth which prompts virtuous conduct.” Mr. B. however, does intimate, and even assert, “ that the men who are the most indifferent to the practice of religion, will ever be he first not only to see the absurdity of a popular superstition, but to embrace a
dissipation," yet that is not the case with all : there are some who are exemplary in their lives, men of eminent piety and virtue, and
rational system of faith.” Does the Reviewer mean, then, to acknowledge, that the rational system does not include that kind of truth which prompts virtuous conduct? There is no truth in his expressions, but upon this supposition.
But this writer not only informs us what Mr. B. did not mean, but what he did mean. (One would think the Reviewer of Dr. Williams must have been very intimate with Mr. B.) Mr. Belsham meant, it seems, “ that the absurdi. ties of a popular superstition are more apt to strike the minds of those who are even indifferent to religion, than of those who are bigoted in their attachment to particular creeds and rites; and therefore, that the former will be more inclined to allow reason to mould their faith, than the latter.”_Review of Dr. Williams' Answer to Mr. Belsham, for Jan. 1792, p. 117.
To be sure, if a Reviewer may be allowed to add a few such words as more, and than, and even, to Mr. B.'s language, he may smooth its rough edges, and render it less exceptionable ; but is it true that this was Mr. B.'s meaning, or that such a meaning would ever have been invented, but to serve a turn ?
If there be any way of coming at an author's meaning, it is by his words, and by the scope of his reasoning; but neither the one nor the other will war. rant this construction. Mr. B.'s words are these: " The men who are the most indifferent to the practice of religion, will ever be the first to embrace a rational system of faith.” If he intended merely to assert, that immoral characters will embrace the truth before bigots, his words are abundantly too strong for his meaning: for, though the latter were allowed to be the last in embracing truth, it will not follow, that the former will be the first. If the rational system were on the side of truth, surely it might be expected, that the serious and the upright would be the first to embrace it. But this is not pretended. Serious Christians, by the acknowledgment of Mrs. Barbauld, are the last that come fully into it.
The scope of Mr. Belsham's reasoning is equally unfavourable to such a construction as his words are. There is nothing, in the objection which be encoun. (ers, that admits of such an answer. It was not alleged. That there was a greater proportion of immoral characters, than of bigots, among the Unitarians ; had this been the charge, the answer put into Mr. B.'s lips, might have been in point. But the charge, as he himself expresses it, was simply this—“ Ration. al Christians are often represented as indifferent to practical religion.” To suppose that Mr. B. would account for this by alleging, that immoral characters are more likely te embrace the truth than bigots, (unelss he denominate all bigots who are not Unitarians,) is supposing him to have left the objection unanswered. How is it, that there should be so great a proportion of immoral characters, rather than of humble, serious, and godly men, or of what Mr. Bel. who are distinguished by Dr. Priestley by the name of " serious Christians.""* To this it is replied
First, Whatever piety or virtue there may be among Socinian converts, it may be doubted, whether piety or virtue led them to embrace that scheme, or were much in exercise in their researches after it. It has been observed, by some who have been most conversant with them, that, as they have discovered a predilection for those views of things, it has been very common for them to discover at the same time a light-minded temper, speaking of sacred things, and disputing about them, with the most unbecoming levity, and indecent freedom : avoiding all conversation on ex. perimental and devotional subjects, and directing their whole discourse to matters of mere speculation. Indeed, piety and virtue are, in effect, acknowledged to be unfavourable to the embracing of the Socinian scheme : for, if “an indifference to religion in general be favourable to the distinguishing between truth and falsehood ;” and if “ those men who are the most indifferent to the practice of religion will ever be the first to embrace the ra. tional system,” it must follow, by the rule of contraries, that piety, virtue, and zeal for religion, are things unfavorable to that system, and that pious and virtuous persons will ever be the last to embrace it : nay, some may think it very doubtful whether they ever embrace it at all. Serious Christians, according to the account of Mrs. Barbauld, are the most difficult sort of people that Socinian writers and preachers have to deal with ; for though they are sometimes brought to renounce the Calvinistic doctrines in theory, yet there is a sort of leaning towards them in their hearts, which their teachers know not how to eradicate. “ These doc
sham calls “ practical believers ?” This was the spirit of the objection : and if the above construction of Mr. B.'s words be admitted, it remains unanswered.
Let Dr. Priestley, or Mr. Belsham, or any of their advocates, who have charged the above quotations with misrepresentation, come forward, and, if they be able, make good the charge. Till this is done, I shall consider them as fair and just, and as including concessions which, though possibly made in an unguarded moment, contain a truth which must prove a millstone about the neck of the Socinian system.
* Discourses on Various Subjects, p. 98.