ALL who have any acquaintance with the controversy between the General Associate Synod, and the Protesting Brethren who have been compelled to a separation from it, may readily believe, that it is with deep concern and great reluctance that the latter come forward at last to address the public on that subject, and to bring such heavy charges against the Associate Judicatories and the religious body with which they were so intimately and so long connected. Controversies with adversaries of any description, and on the most necessary subjects, are in themselves not desirable, and often productive of disagreeable consequences. But they are much more painful when they arise among brethren and church-members, previously connected by the strictest ties of public profession, by habits of friendly intercourse, and bonds of private affection. They would be imprudent and unwise men indeed, regardless of their own and public peace, they would scarcely deserve to be accounted Christians, who, for no cause, or for trivial reasons, would break through these, and forego the advantages and comfort of living together in unity and harmony with those with whom they took sweet counsel, and went to the house of God in company. But all who are acquainted with the sacred laws of religion must know, that amiable and valuable as peace is, there are some things that ought to be preferred unto it: truth and duty to God have still superior claims. Peace, though earnestly pursued, cannot always be obtained; and the friendship of men may be purchased, and the external fellowship of a church cultivated, at too great an expense.
They have long had patience and kept silence. For a course of years they have tried more private and peaceable means of maintaining the principles which have been attacked, of asserting their rights, and pleading the cause which they viewed as in danger; in the hope that the crisis to which matters have been brought might he averted, and the necessity to which they are now reduced prevented. They have the satisfaction to say, that they have not been the first to introduce these disputes into the church-courts, or to bring them before the public. Though their brethren should a thousand times charge them with causing or following divisive courses, and though ignorant persons should receive these charges against them, merely because they are the minor part, and cannot go along with the majority in adopting a different profession, their consciences fully acquit them, and were a detail of facts to be given, which however is not at present proposed, they doubt not but it would acquit them also in the opinion of all impartial judges. Their brethren themselves, and all who have observed the proceedings on both sides, can bear witness that they have all along stood on the defensive; and that they have never taken any step that had the remotest tendency to separation, but as they were compelled by some active procedure on the other side, some new measure importing innovation and imposition, which if yielded unto, would have driven them, with the body to which they belonged, from ground which they formerly occupied. The protestations which they entered, and the measures which they took in pursuance of these, and which have been most offensive, were necessary in their circumstances, and as a minority, for maintaining that ground, and resisting the tide of innovation. And they are now in a manner forced into the field, after all regular attempts to check the progress and establishment of a new system, and to preserve the peace and unity of the Associate Body, on the basis upon which they had long been settled, have proved ineffectual.
Private animosities, personal injuries or disgusts, have, as far as they know themselves, no share in producing or keeping alive this contest: it proceeds solely upon public grounds, and is influenced by an indispensable sense of duty. Though inclination might still prompt them to keep silence, and to suffer all the misrepresentations and obloquy which ignorance, artifice, or prejudice have east upon their sentiments and conduct: though they should refrain from a vindication of their ministerial character and rights, when so injuriously attacked; a neglect and desertion of the public cause, which they are engaged to the utmost of their power to support, would be highly culpable. However little they may be able to do for stemming the swelling tide, altogether to sit still, in such a dangerous time, would be pusillanimity and false prudence, unfaithfulness to God and the generation, and unkindness to their brethren whom they see going astray.
The protesting brethren are sufficiently aware that the spirit taste of the present age tend to make men averse from paying proper attention to the discussion of religious questions, however needful and important. Many have contracted a general prejudice against every thing that appears in the shape of disputation or contending. Even some who make great pretensions of regard to religion, have unawares caught the spirit of the times, and either indiscriminately condemn or superciliously disregard all controversy, as if it were unprofitable to Christians, and necessarily prejudicial to the interests of religion. Nothing can be more unreasonable than such an opinion; and to act. upon such a false maxim must be productive of the most dangerous consequences. Because there have been ages of wrangling among scholastics about impertinent and frivolous questions; because too often in party-disputes, men have lost sight of the great ends of public edification in the unfolding and vindication of truth; because they have been more eager about their own reputation than the credit of a good cause, or have indulged themselves in personal abuse and scurrility; these can afford no good reason for running into the opposite extreme of reprobating all contending with individuals or churches about doctrines or practical duties, which are of general interest to Christians, or rendered interesting from particular circumstances and connections. The currency of such a sentiment (directly contradictory to the apostolical injunction, [Jude, verse 3.] and uniform spirit of the word of God), is a symptom of indifference and luke-warmness in religion; it is often the effect of self-conceit, and taken up, as a specious excuse for ignorance and indolence, by those who wish to give themselves no trouble in discriminating truth from error, or in discovering the path of duty. :Not to mention the inconsistency of this maxim with the other flattering pretensions of the age to impartial inquiry and increasing light and improvement; if adopted and indiscriminately applied, it would either convert men into latitudinarians and sceptics, or lull them into the lethargic sleep of implicit faith, such as held all the world for many ages, before the Reformation roused them. Without diligent reading and serious inquiry, without a narrow canvassing of questions, without frequent and even keen debate, and vigorous exertions excited by these—the system of imposed error had never been detected, and there could not have been a reformation, or a warrantable separation from any church. Every part of religion has successively become, or may become the subject of controversy, through the mistakes or perverse disputings of those who oppose the truth. This weapon is therefore needful. By it the truth has been defended; and a total disuse of it would give free scope to every rising error and evil o prevail without a check.
Divisions are among the offences which our Lord hath said "must needs come," and on account of which a woe is denounced upon the world, as well as on those who are the sinful cause of them. [Matt. 18:7. Comp. Chap. 10:32-39.] They have been eminently the trial of Christians, and are particularly so in the present times. But there are necessary purposes to be effected by them; and "blessed is he whosoever "shall not be offended" in Christ on their account. [Matt. 12:6.] They give a loud call to every one in his station, and according to his opportunity, to endeavour to have his judgment informed, impartially to weigh the merits of every public and interesting question, that he may be ready to take his side, and to act such a part as duty and integrity require. Though none should "go forth hastily to strive" either privately or publicly, or delight in wrangling and contention, yet there are times and situations in which the most pacific may be unavoidably involved in contests, which they are not at liberty nor dare to shun. The order given forth by the Lord of hosts sometimes is, "Let all the men of war draw near, let them come up: beat your plough-shares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong." [Joel 3:9,10.] In such cases, for persons to continue indifferent and inactive spectators, or to arrange themselves on any side, as accident, convenience, interest, or safety may direct; to resolve to go on in the beaten and easy track, to follow the multitude, or the mere voice of human leaders—must be highly criminal. Such conduct, when the precious interests of religion, the welfare of present and future generations, are at stake, must expose them to the charge of minding their own things, and not things of Jesus Christ and the good of many; and they are in danger of incurring curse of the inhabitants of Meroz and the woe pronounced against them that are "at ease in Zion," in the time of her affliction.
When the attention is engrossed by the affairs of the world (as it is to a very high degree with the greater part of professed Christians in the present time), or when, from any other cause, serious enquiry, and even curiosity about religious matters are sopite [i.e., putting one to sleep], ignorance and stupidity with reference to them must reign. A people sunk into such a state, whatever their profession may be, are practically renouncing, and incapable of using the fundamental right of Christians and Protestants, to prove and judge of themselves what is right; and although they may dream and talk of their liberty, they are ready to have the yoke wreathed about their necks, and to be led or driven wherever their masters may be pleased to direct them. There is, indeed, but too great evidence that the mass of the people in Scotland, those of the Secession not excepted, would at present, without much difficulty, acquiesce in almost any change or modification of their religious system, which might be agreed on by a majority of their religious teachers; with a little artful management they might be made Independent or Methodist, not to say Arminian or Arian.
There is still another disposition, very common in present times, which tends to render any information or inquiries about truth and duty fruitless, and to hinder any proper appearance for them. Many have both a capacity to understand and a desire to acquire some knowledge about subjects that come into controversy; they will read, converse, and dispute; having some conviction of right and wrong, they will frequently express their approbation of the one and their condemnation of the other: but this is all the length they will go. Their judgment may be convinced, but their sentiments have no proper influence upon their hearts or conduct. They make no open or consistent appearance for the truth when injured or opposed, they will not disarrange their connections, or risk their ease, convenience, interest, or reputation in its support. They will sometimes pay a just compliment to it in speech, while in practice they desert and dishonour it; like those mentioned by the poet, who are loud in the praises of virtue, while they suffer it to starve. They will sometimes condemn and lament many evils which yet they support, or concur with those who do so. This is even something worse than sinful ignorance or indifference; it is plain dishonesty. It flows not from defect of light, but from want of conscience and religion. To him that knoweth to do good, and doth it not, to him it is sin. Many persons of this description have been found in all corrupt churches, and in degenerate times. Those churches must be far gone in degeneracy, whatever their avowed system may be, when their teachers and members can say and unsay, pretend to dissent and yet conform, can assent to whatever is demanded of them, and acquiesce silently in changes made from time to time by a majority, though opposite to what they formerly professed, and without or contrary to conviction. Such a disposition, though manifesting itself in smaller matters, is an alarming symptom, as it indicates a want of conscience and integrity, which would operate in things of the greatest magnitude.
The subjects of controversy which arise in the Christian world are very various and diversified in their kind. Some of them may, doubtless, be of greater and some of less real or apparent magnitude and utility. Some of them respect the peculiar doctrines of faith, or the instituted worship and government of the church, which depend upon revelation; others more immediately respect articles in natural religion, God’s moral government or the duties of men, which are discernible by the light of nature as well as the Bible. Sometimes they are more simple, sometimes more complex. Any of these in their turn may become the peculiar matter of contending. Whatever belongs to the system of religion and morality has its own place, importance, and use. one of its articles are so small that they can be warrantably relinquished or accounted indifferent; and no truth or error can be so simple as to stand alone or detached from all others. The duty of testifying and contending, therefore, is not to be confined be some things, or to one class exclusively of others, nor doth it depend upon the comparative importance of these, much less upon men’s opinion of that importance. "For whosoever (saith Christ) shall break one of these least commandments, and teach men so, he shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven;" [Matt. 5:19.] and "he that is unfaithful in that which is least, is unfaithful also in much," and so on the contrary. [Luke 16:10.] This has been the uniform doctrine of all sound casuists, and was hitherto current among both bodies of Seceders, and is still applied by them against the tenets of some other denominations in the land; though of late they have varied their language, in reference to the several points brought into dispute by their respective Synods, when the new scheme of principles was to be patronised, and the former discarded to make room for its introduction. The doctrine is palatable and commodious, and the people love to have it so; as by its aid they may get rid of many things which they do not choose, or which it may prove inconvenient for them to hold.
It has been avowedly taught, in these controversies, that the question is not, whether such and such doctrines are true and completely proved from scripture, but whether they be of sufficient or so great importance as to be maintained in the profession of a church; and that such articles as are of less importance ought to be struck out from standards, in order to retain the fellowship and labours of those who call in question or deny them—a doctrine of pernicious tendency; by which, if once admitted, one article may be struck out after another from the profession of a church; for there is no certain criterion by which the limits can be fixed. It is of near affinity to the capital Socinian error that would subject all the particular doctrines of Christianity, and contents of the Bible, though given by divine revelation and authority, to the subsequent decision of human reason, as to their intrinsic truth and propriety. After we find so many articles confessedly true in the Bible or in a Confession of Faith, we must sit down and judge, or somebody for us, which of them are of sufficient importance to be retained, and how many of them are of so little value as that they may be sacrificed to the pleasure, or exchanged for the more useful services or desirable fellowship of men who disown them. And in this manner the scale of latitude ascends upward to the highest degrees; the Arminian, the Arian, and the Socinian usually inculcating on people that the points of difference between them and the orthodox are very insignificant, questions of words and doubtful disputations that it is of small moment whether Jesus be God, or a superangelic being, or mere man; whether the Holy Spirit be a person, or a divine attribute, or virtue. Indeed, men are altogether incompetent judges of the value of any truth viewed in its connections, and the extent of its possible influence; nor can they know the full import of one error or evil, which, if once admitted and allowed to operate, may be accompanied with a train which an infinite eye only can trace. Nor is it left to the choice of individuals or societies what shall be the particular difficulties or dangers with which they have to conflict, or what may be the special duties to which they are indispensibly bound. The place of persons’ birth, their situation in the world, their connection with nations and churches, with present and former generations and transactions, must give them a peculiar interest in these, and subject them to special obligations beyond others. It is incumbent on persons to attend unto these, as well as to those duties and obligations which are common to all Christians, in every period and place of the world; and often the former become a more distinguished and immediate test of faithfulness than the latter.
The questions which in modern times have been keenly agitated both in the political and religious world, which of late have been introduced among Presbyterians and dissenters of all denominations, and more especially into the different Synods in the Secession, whose proceedings and decisions upon them have produced divisions in both,—are not questions of a late origin; nor are they in their nature interesting to one nation or time only, or to any one religious denomination; though to some they may be interesting in a peculiar manner. In whatever light the idle talker or designing partizan may affect to represent them, or however trivial they may appear to the superficial thinker, incapable of discerning their extent and different bearings, they are highly important, nearly connected with the honour of God and the interests of the Redeemer, the welfare of nations and churches. The bare mentioning of their principal subjects, or the very proposal of some of the primary kind, which draw along or comprehend a great number of concomitant and consequential ones, one would think might be sufficient to convince any considerate person of their importance: the proper exercise of human authority, and the rights of conscience, with their relations, extent, and due limitations;—the duty of civil rulers, with reference to things religious and ecclesiastical;—reformation;—national settlements;—covenants and oaths of religion, with their obligation;—the duty of adhering to the religious profession and reformation of past periods, and of prosecuting them in present or future times, with the lawful and scriptural manner of doing this;—change of public standards and subscriptions;—with all their correlates. A determination of one or two of the primary points (and they have now been judicially determined), virtually and consequentially determines all the rest, so far as they have been brought into controversy in these disputes.
In all false schemes or systems, there is usually some radical or fountain-error, whence the rest do flow, and to which they may all be traced. The two first of those mentioned in the above enumeration (the proper exercise of human authority, and the rights of conscience), are evidently most general in their import, and extensive in their influence; and to those who are acquainted with the late controversies it will appear, that, from the new views that have been adopted respecting the one or the other of these, or rather, in their relation to each other, all the late changes in other doctrines or points of public profession, have proceeded. The question, as it has at last come to be discussed, may therefore be summoned up in this general one: Whether may the authority of civil rulers be exercised in various ways about matters of a religious nature, and about the church of Christ; or, do the natural rights of private judgment, or the liberty of conscience, belonging to all men, and the peculiar nature and independence of the church of Christ, render such an exercise of that authority unwarrantable?
Though there are particular doctrines in religion which in themselves, and taken apart, may be allowed to be more important, and to affect more immediately the faith and hope of Christians; yet there are few of the practical kind, in which the best interests of mankind, and the general state of religion in the world are more deeply concerned, than in the right or wrong determination of this question. It affects men, whether considered as subjects of God or of princes, as ministers or members of churches reformed or unreformed, and more especially those who are citizens of reformed states, and who belong to churches that have made peculiar professions, and been brought under particular engagements in reference to this subject—Government and religion may be said to comprise under them the chief good of man in this world, including his external and spiritual felicity. Any one of them separately forms a great and important subject of discussion, much more when they are considered in their union and mutual relation; as they always are in the present question, which is neither merely political nor purely religious, but of a mixed nature. The above great question, and other primary ones connected with it, as they result not from the peculiar nature of Christianity, nor the constitution of the Christian church, catholic or particular (although they are applicable to these); so in their abstract view, and when treated in a general and argumentative way, they are to he examined and determined upon the principles of reason and the law of nature, where revelation is wanting, and where this is enjoyed, upon the joint and concordant principles of both: not upon the ground of human authority, or according to the confined and imperfect model of any existing constitution or laws.
Such questions as the following are evidently of very general concern: Is religion, in any view, a proper object of human laws? Ought not religion, as well as reason, to be considered as belonging unto man, not only individually but also socially? and is not religion necessary not only to the welfare, but, in some degree, to the very existence of civil government and morality? Ought all people and nations to have a religion publicly professed, authorised and maintained among them? Ought the church of Christ, as an external and visible society, where it is introduced, or where revelation is known, to be recognised by the legislature? Ought it, or a pure system of religion, which can justly claim a divine warrant, not only to enjoy common protection and indiscriminate toleration, but to be positively countenanced and supported by government; and the gross impieties, abuses, and disorders, prevailing in corrupt societies or among individuals, to be reformed or repressed by the authority and means competent to bodies politic, as well as by those which are purely spiritual or ecclesiastic, when the interests of both societies or the public good require? Are civil and religious societies in their nature incapable of union and co-operation? Or, are kingdoms and churches by institution, because distinct, rendered incapable of stipulated connection, and of affording mutual benefit, and aid? May they not have certain common interests and objects, about which they may unite in the means competent to both, and employ, with regard to these, the powers, means, and sanctions peculiar to each, without confusion or encroachment upon the province or privileges of each other? Is religion merely a personal concern, so that men’s natural rights and liberties, in any thing respecting it, cannot fall under the direction of public authority, and the restriction and control of laws? Has every man, upon plea of conscience, an unbounded liberty of professing and acting in all religious matters, without being accountable to, or liable to restraint by human authority, except in the case of attacking the existence or disturbing the peace of civil society as such?—These inquiries, and others that have a near affinity to them, it is obvious, belong either to the social world at large, in whatever age or country, or at least to all Christian nations and churches without exception. Accordingly, it is well known to those who are acquainted with the history of society and of literature, that men in every department, writers of every description, ancient and modern, more especially since commencement of the noted era of liberty and letters in Europe, have been eagerly employed in the discussion of them. The philosopher, the politician, the lawyer and the divine, the infidel and the Christian, authors without and within pale of national establishments, have, in their turn, treated and attempted to settle them, although in very different ways, each in his own manner and for the particular purposes which he had in view.
On some of the principal points, however, there will be found a very general agreement, both in the sentiments of the learned, and in the practice and legislative conduct of civilized and Christian nations. How the Protestant churches have determined these questions, how the learned in them have taught, and how those in public authority in them have acted, it is not difficult to ascertain. Though, in some of subordinate and more intricate points connected with this subject, they have sometimes differed; and though, in the application of the general principles, there are undoubtedly evidences of some of them having gone to extremes on both hands; yet until late times the primary doctrines, that civil authority is applicable to religious matters, the propriety of a national church, and of civil establishments of religion were unanimously admitted; or the opposition to them was confined to some obscure or turbulent sects, or to some more bold innovator, dogmatic heretic, or avowed libertine.
An account of the concurring sentiments of the churches and of the learned upon this subject, especially since the commencement of the Protestant reformation, a also of the rise and progress of the opposite opinions, formerly known by the name of Sectarian, and at present vulgarly termed new light, tracing these down, under their different modifications, and various shapes in which they have appeared in preceding periods, to the time of their introduction and gradual spread in Scotland, until they have acquired their present surprising ascendancy,—might be both instructive and entertaining. But the brevity and immediate design of this statement forbids entering on any particular detail of this kind. The following sketch may suffice :—At an early period of the Reformation on the continent, certain sects of separatists from the body of Protestants appeared, who began to propagate peculiar opinions about the nature and exercise of the office of civil magistrates among Christians, the nature of the kingdom of Christ, and Christian liberty, especially in reference to religion, as to which every person and sect were to be left to their own humour or liking, without respect to public authority. Among these, the Anabaptists, Socinians, and those denominated Libertines, were distinguished; by whom commotions were excited in various places, both in civil and ecclesiastical society. In Holland, during the first part of the seventeenth century, after the difference between the Calvinists and Arminians came to a height, the latter (though they had formerly carried the magistrate’s power circa sacra higher than was allowed by the reformed churches), finding the States-General and greater part of the inferior magistrates unfriendly to their cause, began to impugn their authority to interfere with causes of a religious nature, and pleaded for an almost boundless toleration, and the exemption of all peaceable subjects from the acts of synods and magistrates in matters of conscience. In England, during the sitting of the Westminster Assembly, after some progress had been made for settling religion by authority, according to the Solemn League, a number of sectaries appeared, who, in order to hinder a new national establishment, vented these tenets in their discourses and writings, and insisted for a general toleration and liberty; and rested not, until those who favoured their scheme wrested the sword out of the hands of the Presbyterians, and seized on every part of the government, which they employed for their own purposes, involving all the three kingdoms again in troubles and bloody wars, and restricting considerably the due freedom of the ministry and ecclesiastical courts; though under the republic and the usurpation of Cromwell, for political reasons, the laws that had been made for settling religion were never repealed, but only restricted and new-modelled.
Under the tyranny of the two brothers, Charles II. and James, when all classes of dissenters were suffering under the severity of the laws against non-conformity, some of these principles were occasionally urged to expose the injustice of persecution, especially in the disputes occasioned by the acts of indulgence and toleration. In these the Quakers took an active part, and carried the doctrine of toleration to the greatest latitude; on which account their leader, Pen, became a favourite at court, and a tool for the introduction of Popery, under that specious pretext, immediately before the Revolution in Britain. About this time, some philosophical writers and political defenders of the rights of subjects, against the encroachments of arbitrary power and the system of persecution which had long prevailed, among whom Mr. Locke was the most eminent and successful, while they laid down and defended the juster principles of free government, did not always observe the due limits, nor in every point accurately explain or warily balance the rights of rulers and subjects, particularly in reference to religion: though they did not go to the extreme into which those who succeeded them have gone. The affinity that appeared in some points between the maxims of government adopted at the Revolution and the tenets of the sectaries, gave to the latter greater credit and currency. Their apparent tendency to rid the world of the infernal monster Persecution, disposed many to entertain a favourable opinion of them, and they were embraced by numbers, especially among Dissenters in England and Ireland, and among the warm advocates for the Whig-interests of different religious creeds; among whom were a number of free-thinkers, who by their writings began to disseminate these principles, as some of the same character abroad had artfully and successfully done. These principles were introduced into Scotland more lately than into the neighbouring nation, and did not spread so rapidly here. During the course of the eighteenth century, after they were vented by Mr. Glass, they were condemned, and censures passed upon their abettors, both by the National church and by the judicatories of the Secession. Of late, however, they have been circulated very extensively, being not only warmly cherished and patronised by the various classes of Anabaptists and Independents, but having also leavened Presbyterian churches, and, among the rest, the two large bodies of Seceders.
These opinions, being gradually combined with the principles of civil liberty, began to be extolled as essential to it, under the imposing names of freedom of inquiry, right of private judgment, rights of men, &c. But the scheme, in all its extent, and as avowed in modern times, goes beyond the genuine principles of Protestant and British liberty, civil or religious, is incompatible with the spirit of the laws and the established system of government still subsisting in free states and kingdoms, and even exceeds the bounds to which the abettors of it, who had any regard to religion, ventured to carry it in former times. Indeed, the modern theory which teaches the total disunion of civil polity and religion, and that matters of religion pertain not to the province of civil rulers, has not yet been adopted into the constitution or code of any civil legislature. Attempts were made to reduce it to practice in two modern republics, whose revolutions have made such noise in the world; [France and America.] but even in these the theory has not been fully realised, and the experiments that have been tried are very far from exhibiting, by their process and effects, a proof of its wisdom and utility.
The scheme was not, however, carried to its most dangerous height, until it was adopted, and refined from the adhesion of religious fanaticism, by sceptical writers, philosophical infidels, and modern pretended illuminati, who employed it artfully and covertly to undermine and shake all established systems of religion, and to deprive them of the support of government; partly out of hatred of all church-power, partly from pride and fondness to oppose common sentiments; sometimes to humour the spirit of irreligion and libertinism among the great and fashionable, or the propensity to licentiousness among the populace, and at the same time to accommodate themselves to unprincipled rulers and politicians, who wished to be free from the restraints of religion, and the burden of caring for it, and whose sole aim and end were the advancement of their secular interests and policy. To some of these writers we owe the warm defence of the doctrines of the absolute sovereignty and uncontrollable empire of conscience, of a moral sense, taste or feeling, the infallible test of truth, the independent arbiter of right and wrong in morals and religion. And as Archimedes demanded but one point on which to stand to fix his lever, and he would move the world; so if they could but once firmly establish this one position, upon which to rest their apparatus, they know it might be possible to heave up and remove the whole incumbent weight of government, civil or ecclesiastical. No authority would be left in these matters to interfere, but what would suffer every man to do what was right in his own eyes, as in those days (happy days surely!) when there was no king in Israel.
Sectarian principles are opposed to unity and uniformity in religion, and to the proper means for promoting these, whether by civil or ecclesiastical society. In the present controversy they are considered chiefly with reference to civil authority, and are so called, not only because they have been commonly held by sects that had separated from the great body in Protestant churches, but also on account of their tendency to produce and foster endless sects, by patronising, instead of checking all sorts of religious opinions and different forms of worship. Though they are sometimes denominated a new scheme, or new principles; and sometimes new light, because they are recommended, in our times, as the effect of further light and improvements than our fathers were blessed with, yet it will be evident to any acquainted with modern church-history and literature, that, from whatever source they may have been immediately drawn, whether from the religious sectaries above mentioned, the sentiments of latitudinarian and socinianizing divines, or the schools of more modern philosophers, they are far from being new. Every proposition and favourite phrase, the very modes of expression used in argument, explication, or declamation, are but a repetition of what may be found almost verbatim, in a variety of productions left by their worthy predecessors. They may indeed he allowed to be new in the mouths and creeds of Scots Presbyterians and Seceders; and to try to incorporate them with their former profession, and render them consistent with their former subscriptions is certainly a new and very bare-faced attempt.
In the foregoing summary account of the origin and progress of these opinions (which the history and writings of preceding ages abundantly confirm), when the erroneous sectaries and licentious free-thinkers are mentioned as the chief abettors of them, for promoting their pernicious designs, it is not meant to charge those persons, of different denominations in the religious world, who, in later times, have openly favoured the same tenets, with being of the same spirit in other respects, or having the same mischievous purposes in view with many of that description. Such a charge, indiscriminately thrown out, would involve too many eminent for learning, probity, and a benevolent peaceable disposition, and also distinguished for piety and known zeal for Christianity. Among the parties professing the most warm attachment to evangelical truth and practical religion, whom the great corruptions in the existing establishments have cooled in their regard, and detached more or less from them, these opinions will perhaps be found, in the present day, to be more widely diffused, and to have met with a more general reception, than among other classes of men professing Christianity. But while we acquit many of those who have embraced and promote the scheme, and in charity absolve them from any such evil intentions, we are not, on that account, to entertain more favourable thoughts of the scheme itself, or to be less alarmed at its hurtful tendency. It has been gradually working like leaven, and may have been unawares imbibed. Many have as yet professedly adopted only some parts of the system, while they startle at admitting the rest, though at the expense of consistency; and some who have embraced certain of the radical errors, whence others spring, may not discern their native tendency, or will not suffer themselves to trace the consequences to their full extent.
The hurtful tendency of the scheme is not yet apparent, as it .has not been reduced to practice. Those of a religious character, whether in public or private stations in churches, who have adopted it, are yet in one respect holding it in theory; they have not an opportunity of reducing it to practical effect with political government. This power is not committed into their hands: they are not called to act as governors of ,nations and framers of constitutions for commonwealths; they are not called into the king’s council, nor have they opportunity or influence to direct the consciences of those who rule and conduct public affairs. They do not "bear up the pillars of the earth," so as either to establish them well or to unsettle them.—The scheme has not an opportunity of displaying itself: it is yet in a great measure repressed by the general sentiments of mankind and the old systems of policy. Men who move in a different sphere of life, who live in obscurity, and have little access to know how mankind or particular nations need to be governed, are very ready to form ideal systems, though specious, yet false and impracticable; faults and defects, real or supposed, they may spy, and they think that by their superior sagacity they could make a thorough reform, and rectify all evils at once. The pulpits, too, may resound with new doctrines, and convocations and synods of divines may pass ecclesiastical decisions about the power of rulers; while the higher powers continue to act according to their own ideas, and the political world goes on steadily much in its old course. Although obstinacy too often appears in adhering to established errors, and slighting the proposal of needful reformation; yet, on the other hand, it is good that public order and peace are not disturbed by every cry of those who are given to change, and that varying winds of doctrines and new laws, which produce hurtful effects in ecclesiastical society, do not operate directly in shaking the constitutions and peace of nations.
But we are not, on this account, to view these opinions as merely speculative or innoxious in themselves, or with regard to the public state of society. They have a necessary application to the state and welfare of the British government, and of all other nations. They respect relations actually existing, and which must continue to exist, and power with which some are invested, that is continually exercised according to some set of principles and rules. As it is of the greatest consequence what these are, whether conducive to the public good, or the contrary; so it must be of importance what principles are publicly taught and circulated on this subject, by which the minds of the people may be influenced, and the public peace and the exercise of magistratical authority gradually and remotely affected. It must be the duty of all good Christians and patriots, to endeavour to counteract the influence and spread of errors upon this head. The spirit and modes of Government, and the opinions and manners of a people, reciprocally have influence upon one another.
History and the experience of all ages shew how powerfully and almost irresistibly government and laws operate upon the mass of mankind: they form, in a great degree, the opinions and characters of the inhabitants of every country. Their religious state and interests, as well as their secular, are in no small degree determined by them. The greater part will be found contenting themselves with the religion which they find previously established or generally practised in the places where they dwell. Almost all conform at first without previous rational inquiry, of which many are incapable, and to which more are indisposed, in circumstances unfavourable to truth. How great an advantage then must it be to have authority and public institutions on the side of the things which are true and good; and to preserve these when they have been once settled on such a footing in a nation! Not only to have all public hindrances and legal terrors removed; but to have the minds of people taught and trained to walk in the right way from their youth up, with line upon line, and precept upon precept. That men in the higher and lower ranks of life should have the current of education, conversation, custom, habit, public favour, not excluding worldly interests and rewards, running on the side of true religion and duty. Although infidels delight to declaim against every profession of religion which is sucked in with the mother’s milk; and many affect to make light of the result of such a state of things, as prejudice, mere pretence or hypocrisy, yet these are salutary prejudices, if prejudices they must be called, and public benefit arises from them upon the whole, whatever accidental abuses may attend them. Nor are such means inconsistent with, or intended to supersede, but, on the contrary, are subservient, and calculated to conciliate respect and attention unto others which directly tend to produce rational conviction; and particularly to divine institutions, by which the minds of men may be enlightened, their consciences suitably affected, and real, evangelical, and practical religion promoted. The striking influence of corrupt constitutions, in rendering prevalent and permanent ignorance, superstition, idolatry, and imposture, instead of being an argument against every thing of this kind; on the contrary, serves to shew with what good effect, and to what good purposes, political government, properly directed and duly limited, may be employed about religion, not only by counteracting and abolishing such corrupt systems, but also in settling and perpetuating a better. It is unreasonable and absurd to repudiate or contemn common, lawful, or necessary measures for promoting a good cause, merely because they have been: or may be employed by others for maintaining and advancing one that is bad. What serious and intelligent Christian would neglect the education of his children in the principles of true religion, because the Papist, the Mahometan, and the Pagan would employ the same means, for instilling into the minds of their youth the false and corrupt principles of their respective systems?
As, on the one hand, government and laws have great influence upon the religious opinions and practice of mankind; so, on the oilier hand, the stability and peace of existing governments, with any successful efforts for promoting religion, or introducing a reformation when needful, must, under God, depend very much upon the state of the public mind and general opinion, especially of those who may have greatest influence in society. Governors themselves cannot be fitted for acting their part without previous instruction, and the knowledge of just principles; nor could their measures be ultimately successful, unless a people were prepared to concur with them. And what class of men have it more in their power to enlighten or mislead, to give a bias, right or wrong, to public mind, especially of the body of the people, than the teachers of religion? To instruct all ranks of men in their duty, to inculcate all the obligations of the moral law, unquestionably belongs to their office. The views therefore which they entertain, and the doctrines which they propagate, on subjects so generally interesting, can never be indifferent speculations but must be accompanied with corresponding effects. If they should either decline the task of teaching any thing on these subjects, or exert themselves in spreading false notions, which they themselves have imbibed, how can they fail to be blind leaders of the blind; or how can they, or the people that follow them, be free from a large share of the public guilt and calamities which their errors have contributed to produce?
Religion enters into the various affairs of men, and operates upon all their actions. It has had the most important influence upon some of the greatest changes which have been effected in the state of the world at large, and of particular nations. The religious spirit, that prevailed both abroad and at home in the sixteenth century, had more than half its share in producing and forwarding that great revolution, which terminated in favour of religious and political liberty in so many of the kingdoms of Europe. Without it, the flame would not have been kindled, or would probably have soon been extinguished. Men of this spirit, particularly public teachers, preceded the philosophers, and stimulated the timid and wary politicians. They roused the people to consider their rights, and to exert their powers. They instructed, animated, and encouraged princes, nobles, confederating states, and their armies, against the most formidable opposition, and under the most overwhelming calamities; until their perseverance was at last productive of great and extensive advantages. These facts are now admitted, and this honour, through the force of truth, is at last conceded, by modern infidels themselves, to the religious leaders, and zealous promoters of the Protestant reformation. [See Villars’ Essay on the Spirit and Influence of the Reformation of Luther.] Nor are instances wanting, both in Britain and in other nations, of the pernicious effects produced by a religious spirit, when under the direction of false principles, especially when these apply to political government and its settlements, as far as they have religion for its object. Both of these serve to shew, of what consequence it is to the public good of mankind, that sound principles be entertained, and those of an opposite kind counteracted.
The modern principles, wherever they are embraced, must, in the minds of those who teach or receive them, be applied to every existing government and authority; and these must be approved or condemned, according as they agree with or differ from these principles. As, by a retrospect, they lead men to pronounce a judgment upon constitutions and transactions in times past, they, in a direct manner, attach praise or blame, respect or disregard, to those that presently exist; and they look forward to future changes, to a new political order of things, national or universal, upon the projected model. Therefore, in order to form a proper estimate of the nature, tendency, and pernicious effects of this scheme, we must suppose men to be impelled by its principles to action in civil society; we must suppose rulers or subjects, either apart or in conjunction, making the attempt to change, or actually changing, the frame of their government, and the system of their laws, so as to conform them to these principles. What would be the consequence? Every constitution in Christendom must be taken to pieces and altered, in as far as any particular religion (the best reformed not excepted), obtains a legal preference and support. Public securities and privileges in behalf of Protestant churches, obtained at vast expense, would all at once be annulled. Settled provision for maintaining religious institutions, or any mode of Christian instruction by law, would be withdrawn. Fundamental laws in particular states: the social compact, in as far as religion is comprehended in it; with coronation oaths for maintaining the religion of a nation;—must be swept away as rubbish. The great charter securing universal liberty, or license of conscience, would come instead of them all.—Errors and heresies, fanaticism, superstition, and idolatry would reign; and ignorance, irreligion, and infidelity triumph. Were we to speak of the ferment and combustion which this revolution would introduce into the political world, with the previous and violent conflict with the old and established principles of government on this subject, and of the disorder, discord, anarchy, and profligacy, which would spring from the new order of things, the description, although justified by the reason of the thing, and the former history of mankind, might be regarded as exaggerated by those who cannot trace principles to their native consequences, and who are not aware of the mutual retroactive influence of religion and government. We speak only of the direct and necessary effects of the new scheme, if reduced to practice. It is a scheme which, however charitably we may judge of the intentions of many who patronise it, and however far the remoter consequences are from their view, we cannot but regard as fraught with danger both to religion and society. It tends to make people disaffected with, perhaps, the best and soundest part of the constitution under which they may live, and to cause them disdainfully to reject the benefit, and throw off the restraint of salutary laws. It unduly limits civil authority in the sphere of its operation, and disables it from discharging one principal part of its official duty which, according to the word of God, and the doctrine of Protestants, is "to maintain piety" as well as "justice and peace." [Confession of Faith, chap. xxiii, sec. 2 with the Scriptures adduced.]
To render the ultimate tendency of these principles more apparent to those who cannot trace them to their necessary consequences, let us apply them to the political system of our own country, and let Britain be supposed the scene of future operation. There was a notable period, in which a series of laws were made for advancing and sanctioning a religious reformation, which obtained the approbation of the wise, and a testimony from the good. These have long ago been rescinded by the sweeping act of Charles II.; annulling the authority of the parliaments by which they were made. As these are now politically dead, they must always remain so, and no enlightened statesman must ever propose or assent to any thing like a revival of them. Nor can the existing laws with reference to religion expect to meet with a better fate. All laws ratifying the Protestant religion in Britain, or even recognising Christianity and the Bible, must be set aside. The whole series of laws approving, confirming, and establishing the Presbyterian religion, with the liberties and privileges of the church in Scotland, "to continue "without any alteration to the people of this land in all future generations;" whether granted in the more early periods of the Reformation, or in pursuance of the claim of right at the Revolution, the security of which establishment was declared to be "a fundamental and essential condition" of the union between the two kingdoms, "without any derogation thereto for ever;" [Act for securing the Protestant Religion, and Presbyterian Church Government, anno 1707.] all of these must be given up with, and exchanged for the visionary and undescribed liberty of all religious professions. The coronation oath, by which his Majesty swore that he would invariably "maintain and preserve the settlement of the true Protestant religion, with the government, worship, and discipline, rights and privileges of the church of Scotland established by the laws; "—must be declared null and void; together with that fundamental law of the British constitution, which provides, that none shall ascend the throne of this kingdom who is not a Protestant, or who marries any other than a Protestant. The public provision settled by law for maintaining divine ordinances and religious instruction, must be withdrawn, wholly secularised, and applied to the more laudable and useful purposes of making roads, or constructing bridges, paying subsidies, or carrying on wars. It would be a fundamental law in the new constitution, that no part of the national property should henceforth be applied to any religious purpose whatsoever, and that no legislature should have it in their power to vote any sum for promoting Christian knowledge in ignorant, poor, or desolate places at home, or for Christianising extensive regions of the empire abroad. Public institutions for education, as far as they have religion for their object, and as securities respecting the religious principles of teachers are appointed by government, would also be abolished; as implying that the promoting of religion belonged to civil authority, and impinging on the corner stone of the new scheme, that "in matters purely religious, civil rulers have no right to judge for any but themselves."
The laws against blasphemy, profaneness, and the propagation of infidelity would be found incompatible with the new opinions. Those which were made for promoting the sanctification of the Sabbath, and for preventing the profanation of that holy day, cannot escape in the application of the extensive and sweeping principle, that "the power competent to worldly kingdoms respects only the secular interests of society." No other institution has contributed more to preserve religion in the world than the Sabbath; and its decent and religious observance among any people must greatly depend upon the enactment and due execution of salutary laws. But it cannot be pleaded for as contributing to promote the secular interests of society, except upon the principle, that the observance of religious ordinances does so; nor can the laws in its favour be successfully or consistently vindicated in any other way, than upon the principle, that magistrates in their official capacity have a concern with religion, and that it is their duty externally to support its institutions. But the admission of the last of these principles, and of the first as a ground for magistratical interference, is totally eversive of the new-light scheme. Neither is the Sabbath one of these things which are known by the light of nature, nor is it an ordinance merely moral, but as far as respects the definite and specified time is of positive institution. The observance of the first day of the week is an appointment of Jesus Christ, the King and Head of his church, and contained in the New Testament. According to the new principles, civil rulers can have no right to make laws respecting this ordinance, or add sanctions unto it; their conduct in this matter must be represented, according to the reasoning now current, as an invasion on the prerogative of Christ; as if the king of Spain or the emperor of France should presume to ratify and add his sanctions to the laws made by the king and parliament of Great Britain. Such laws must therefore be repealed and every one left at liberty to pursue his secular interests or pleasure on that day, to walk or ride, to buy or sell, to plough, or sow or reap, provided he does not disturb the peace of society.
Such are a few of the pernicious effects which would be produced by the new system. If reduced to practice in Protestant and reformed countries along with some abuses, it would remove and abolish much that is good and valuable—institutions conducive to the welfare of society, and capable of being improved to the great advancement of religion and the kingdom of Christ. However much such a scheme of government and reformation may be now cried up as sound policy, essential to the liberties of mankind, and necessary to secure the spirituality of Christ’s kingdom: for our part we do not see how it can be freed from impiety and rebellion against the Lord and his Anointed. Its language is too like to that of those who said, "Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us;" it is a refusal to obey divine command, to "serve the Lord the Son," which is addressed to nations as well as individuals. It would be an irreligious, an ungodly, an unchristian reformation. If adopted by Britain, instead of reviving the spirit and prosecuting the ends of former reformations, it would blot out her name from among the nations of Christendom, and would expose her to the merited exprobation addressed by God to his ancient people: "Pass over the isles of Chittim and see; and send unto Kedar, and consider diligently, and see if there be such a thing: Hath a nation changed their gods which are yet no gods? but my people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit. Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the Lord!" [Jer. 2:10-12.]
Bad as we are, it is hoped that we are not yet prepared for the adoption of this system, and that there are still a number, who, although they may have unwarily admitted some of its leading principles, may be persuaded to pause, reconsider, and contemplate the inevitable consequences to which it leads. Persons, by fixing their attention unmoveably upon certain evils and abuses which attach to, or result from the establishments with which they are acquainted, are in danger of overlooking the more general and extensive good which they are calculated to produce, or may be rendered subservient unto; and, instead of seeking the correction of abuses, and the redress of grievances, they are ready to look forward with big expectations to a total revolution in such matters, without taking into view, or being aware of the infinitely greater evils which would arise from the new order of things. The system which would equalize all kinds of religion in the eye of the law, which proclaims an universal right and liberty in such matters, and deprives religion and its institutions of the countenance and support of human laws;—though it has a specious and inviting appearance, contains in its bowels, like the Trojan horse, an host of evils, which, issuing forth, would spread devastation around, and soon lay the bulwarks and palaces of Christianity in the dust. Many of those who are most eager in procuring its admission within their walls (ignorant of what is concealed in it), may be among the first to lament their credulity, and condemn their rashness when it is too late.
From the preceding observations, it may appear, that the subject of the present dispute is far from being unimportant, or interesting only to few. It concerns the best interests of mankind, and is peculiarly interesting to British Protestants, and to Presbyterians in Scotland. The ministers who have opposed the introduction of the new principles into the General Associate Synod, have always viewed the subject in this general light, and not merely in its reference to the particular state of their profession as a separate religious body. Although in their contendings they have been necessarily called in duty to pay particular attention to the latter, yet they have not lost sight of the former. On the controverted points, Seceders have hitherto maintained no other doctrines, than have been common to the reformed churches, and have been always taught in the public standards of the church of Scotland.