ESSAY ON TOLERANCE.
by
James R. Willson.


There is perhaps no word in the English language, more abused than the word tolerance. If a writer is found vigorously supporting any cause which he believes to be right, and endeavoring to shew that the opposite must be wrong, he is immediately styled intolerant. This is more especially the case in matters of religion. If he is firmly persuaded that the system of doctrines which he believes, is the system of the Bible, he is considered a bigot. If he endeavors to demonstrate that any thing is error, he is marked for intolerance.

Nothing is more evident than the being of a God. It is not less evident that he is the creator of all things. It necessarily follows that he must be a lawgiver to all his creatures. They cannot be independent. Moral subjects must be governed by a moral law. All who believe the Bible to be the word of God, admit that it contains the law, by which, all men who have received it, are to governed. I am not now considering the case of infidels, but of such as would view it abuse to be called infidels. All Bible believers admit, that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, are the only rule of faith and manners. They are then the law, by which the Almighty legislator wills, that his rational subjects should be governed.

Human laws must, no doubt, be very imperfect, because men are imperfect. On the nature of moral right and wrong, they will necessarily be defective. But none will venture to say so of divine laws. They are predicated on the eternal and immutable principles of rectitude. Did the divine legislator intend that they should be operative [i.e., exerting force or influence]? Is it so that they are capable of being understood? To deny either of these [propositions], would be to nullify them. A law that was never to be acted upon, would not be entitled to the name of a law. An unintelligible law would be a disgrace to its maker. It is presumed, that representing the laws of the ruler of the universe, either as inoperative, or unintelligible, would be to insult him to his face.

Is it meant by tolerance, that the divine law in every case, or in some cases, ought to be dispensed with?—that there is no divine law? or if there be, that it ought not to be acted upon? What is this thing called tolerance? Again, what is intolerance? Is it a contending that God has a right to rule—that he has actually given laws—and that they ought to be obeyed? Is the man an intolerant man, who contends that God has given laws to the universe? Some men would exclude religion from having any place in the world; but the modern vocabulary of tolerance and intolerance seems disposed to exclude the Almighty himself, from having any rule in his own creation. But it will be said, no human interference ought to be permitted. If God chooses to make laws, they must not be executed by fallible men.

In reply to this, it might be inquired, what if the divine law actually contemplated, and positively required a human executor? "He that sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed." "Thou shall throw down their altars, thou shalt break in pieces their images, and burn their groves with fire." Is this intolerance? It will readily be granted, that there ought to be no human interference without a divine command. Had the Israelites put the Canaanites to death without the command of God, it would, no doubt, have been murder. God has given to every living man his life, and who dare take it away unbidden by the divine giver? Still it will be urged, that although God has a right to give laws, yet men will differ about the meaning of these laws, and the law is, as every one understands it.

Is this, or is this not, the destruction of all law? Would the United States suffer their laws to be thus interpreted? Would any state in the union? Yet the executors are all fallible and imperfect men; and some of these laws too, respect life and death. No matter what the reason may be, if a law cannot be put in execution, that law is nugatory [i.e., worthless].

But it will be replied, states have a right to make laws, and human laws can be understood.

If this is not meant to say, that God has not a right to make laws, or that his laws cannot be understood, it says nothing. As an isolated truth, it is no objection to what is here contended for, and is out of place, as having no bearing on the subject. But if it is heeded to as an objection, the objection will be welcome to the consequence. It will not avail, to say, as is often said, that there are many deep, mysterious doctrines in the Bible, that men differ widely about articles of faith—who will be the judge, &c. because all this is a palpable evasion. The question is not about mere matters of faith, but matters of practice. It respects the duties required, and the crimes forbidden, by the lawgiver of heaven and earth—what he commands to be done, and what to be avoided.

It might not be amiss to enquire, whether God could give laws that men ought to act upon? It is presumed, that few would have the hardihood to say, in so many words, he could not. And yet this often the consequence. After it is urged, that fallible and imperfect men have no right to meddle with divine laws. What! even though God has commanded them. Did the divine Lawgiver lose his right to command man, because they are imperfect and fallible? How came they to be imperfect, surely, by their sin and rebellion against God. And did this put it out of the power of the Almighty to give them a law? Did man sin himself into independence? Did he, by rebelling against God, put himself out of the control of his Maker? This would, indeed, be an easy way to get clear of divine authority.

It may still be alleged, that it is not with respect to individual and personal responsibility, that the case is argued; but with respect to society.

Then it is only society that is out of the reach of divine legislation. But why should not the omnipotent be allowed the right to make laws for society? What attributes of God would prevent his presiding, authoritatively, over the social compact? Let us enquire into the nature of society. Is it a self-originating thing? Who created society? Was it not God who said, it is not good that man should be alone? Did not the Creator bestow upon man a social nature? And is not social, as well as individual man, amenable to the laws of his Creator? If society be God’s creating, and not a creature of the creature, then God has a right to prescribe the laws by which society shall be governed. It would seem that wherever there are relations among men, the laws regulating these relations, belong to divine government.

It may be yet objected, that this view of the matter will give the Bible a decided preference. And it will be asked, are not the rights of those who deny the Bible as sacred, as those of the Bible believer?

It will be admitted that this view does indeed give the Bible a preference, while it is readily granted that the rights of Deists are to be held sacred.—All rights are, or ought to be sacred. If murderers have rights, let them be scrupulously respected. A right is a right, wherever it is found. The right of a Deist to deny divine revelation, or that the Bible is so, is what the objection contemplates. Now it may be doubted whether any man has that right, or rather whether it be a right. It might be enquired, can God give a revelation of his will to men? It is presumed that this will be admitted to be competent to Deity. If God gives such a revelation, it may be asked, whether it has any claim on the faith of those to whom it is made known? Are they bound to believe it? And if it prescribes laws for the regulation of their conduct, are they bound to obey these laws? In short, has God a right to command them? or have they a right to reject the command? The question at issue is about the paramount authority. God cannot have a right to command their acceptance of his revelation, and they a right to reject it at the same time. The one destroys the other. Let it be admitted, that the paramount authority is on the side of God Almighty and the supposed right of the Deist will be a non-entity. There is no such right. This in modern style, may be called persecution. So the government of God may be called tyranny. No matter, still the Supreme Being will govern, and his law must be obeyed, or men must abide the consequences.

It will, no doubt, be urged, that the right of conscience is a sacred right—that whatever a man’s conscience thinks right, is right to him. No matter whether he be a Jew, a Christian, a Pagan, or a Mahometan—whether he believes the Bible or the Koran, or that both are an imposition, provided he conscientiously believes what he believes. Every man has an inalienable and indefeasible right to think, believe, and act, according to the dictates of his own conscience. And to call this in question is tyrannical, and to attempt to prevent it is persecution.

In answer to this, it would be necessary to settle the point, what is conscience, and what is right?—Conscience may be considered as a faculty or power of the soul of man, by which, as a judge, he passes sentence, in God’s name, upon his own conduct. It is the deputy or vicegerent of God in the soul, which pronounces in his name, a sentence of approbation, or disapprobation, on human conduct, according as it appears to be morally right or wrong. Respect must be had, in every case, to a law. There is no possibility of knowing what is right or wrong—approvable or disapprovable, without a law. Sin is a transgression of the law. The judgment passed by conscience upon an action, is a moral judgment. The understanding too, is a faculty of the human soul, by which we form judgments. We compare ideas—we examine evidence, and we judge the truth or falsehood of a proposition, by the understanding. In reference to a law, we examine actions, and determine their agreement or disagreement therewith, and so pronounce them good or bad, by the exercise of understanding. The understanding, comprehending the demonstration, judges that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles.

But the conscience is distinguished, in its acts of judgment, from the understanding, inasmuch as all its judgments are judicial. It decides not merely as a jury finding a man innocent or guilty, but as the judge on the bench it pronounces a sentence of acquittal, or condemnation, according as the understanding has discovered an agreement, or disagreement, between the action and the law, in that case made and provided. The conscience, therefore, is not a rule or law, but a judge, applying the law to the case at hand, and pronouncing sentence accordingly. To identify the law with the judge, is a compounding of distinct ideas and calculated to destroy the precision of language. What are the rights of conscience? We might perhaps understand this question, by enquiring what are the rights of a judge? They are precisely, what the law allows him. The rights of conscience are, precisely, what the law of God allows it, neither more nor less. But the law of God never can give to the conscience of man, a right to act contrary to that law. This would be a sanction from the law, to destroy itself. Any thing, therefore, which the divine law forbids, never can be found among the rights of conscience.

It might, perhaps, assist us in forming correct ideas on this subject, to ask what is a right? It must be something opposite of wrong, for these words present contradictory ideas. Right can never be understood in an immoral sense. It matters little what may be the kind of right contemplated. Every conceivable kind of right must correspond with its name. It must be moral in its nature. An immoral right, i.e., a wrong right, is a contradiction in terms, and self-destructive. All creatures rights are derived from God. But God delegates no right to think, speak, or act, otherwise than his law directs. The legislative character of the Almighty is essentially connected with his divine sovereignty. It is here, in an eminent manner, that he is a jealous God. In article of supremacy, he will bear no competitor. He will not—he cannot share his sovereignty. Even to Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, he must necessarily say, "in the throne will I be greater than thou." The Lord is our Lawgiver. How did it ever come to pass, that the breach of Jehovah’s law was denominated a right? That the conscience of man may err, is generally granted. But how does its error come to be called a right? The law of God, whenever it is known, is the formal rule and reason of human obedience. God commands that which is right, but we obey, because we are commanded. What command of God will justify a breach of his law, even though that breach should be dignified with the name of a sacred right of conscience? If God has given a well attested revelation of his law, conscience has no right to present a negative to any part of it. The Bible of God is the law-book of his kingdom, and wherever it comes, it claims, and justly claims, a supreme and paramount authority to rule the conscience, and regulate the relations of human society. To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.


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