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As to the doctrine concerning the person of Christ, you and I do not differ so much, but that we agree in this, that, at the last day, the inquiry will not be what we thought of him, but whether we have obeyed his commands, and especially that great command, of loving his brethren, and, consequently, of shewing all possible candour to them. Looking for, and hasting unto, that great day, I am,
With the affection of a brother,
I AM happy to find that, in consequence of the Address which I took the liberty to make to you, on the subject of subscription to articles of faith, and of the present controversy relating to the person of Christ, others have likewise addressed themselves to you; and as I do not wish to have fairer umpires in the case, it is with peculiar satisfaction that I once more solicit your attention, and before your tribunal make my defence, in answer to several charges advanced against me by different persons, and especially by Mr. Howes, a learned member of your church. These charges affect my late theological writings in general, my moral character, and the merits of the question in debate.
According to Mr. Howes, my Histories "of the Corruptions of Christianity," and "of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ," with the tracts I have written in defence of
them, are a "huge mass of historical, critical, metaphysical, and philosophical romance," and not of an instructive or entertaining kind, as romances might be. Speaking of Epiphanius, whose authority, you know, is not the highest among the Christian fathers, he says, "If I found a hundredth part of the mistakes, inaccuracies and romances in the history of Epiphanius, as in Dr. Priestley's own histories, I should readily give him up as an incompetent witness."+
Alluding to my small pretensions to philosophy, he says, "While ostensibly they pretend to act upon philosophic principles, they, in reality, only display a different mode of exerting a blind and impetuous sectarian zeal, and they daily commit the same ravages with their pens, upon the venerable remains of Christian antiquity, which their predecessors, the Mahommedan Unitarians, did with fire and sword, by destroying or mangling all the authentic memorials of the Christian religion in ancient ages; and this, in order to favour the pretended high antiquity of their own Unitarian tenets; of the existence of which I can, in fact, find no evidence before the age of Socinus, 1500 years after Christ, but, at least, not in the first two centuries."+
As to my pretension of having truth for the object of my inquiries, Mr. Howes absolutely ridicules it, as you will find in the following exordium to his last work, which is so eloquent that I cannot forbear giving it entire: "The spirit of disputation is like a magic glass, which inverts the whole creation; that is no longer light which we see, nor that real substance which we feel; it teaches us to doubt even our own existence; all the attainments of human science, all the ancient traditions of religion, all the memorials of written history, all the slow and accumulated knowledge of past ages, are made to disappear like a vision, are displaced, distorted, or annihilated, whenever they stand in the way of a new and favourite hypothesis; which has been hastily, perhaps, taken up at first by a false spirit of philosophy, nursed by the subtle spirit of metaphysics, and defended by a wrangling spirit of disputation; all of these sufficient enemies to truth, to be both able and willing to disfigure every feature of it, and this also even in the very moment when the most flattering promises are made of an inviolable attachment to truth, and truth only."§
Appendix to his fourth volume [of Observations], p. 7. (P.) † Ibid. p. 41. (P.) Ibid. p. 23. (P.)
§ Ibid. pp. 1, 2. (P.)
"Few," he says, "too few, perhaps, may be inclined along with myself, to search for truth with caution and candour, or to embrace it when discovered. Therefore it has been for the few alone that my observations have been calculated. From those who bring religious or disputatious prejudices along with them I can expect no good; if, while they ostensively profess the cause of truth only, they bring with them a lurking envy at the emoluments of the Established Church; and though called by Elijah to follow him to heaven, if they have their thoughts still fixed upon earth, upon unyoking the oxen, and partaking of the tithes, &c., all such, before they approach the hallowed ground of Truth, must first put off the old man that is corrupt, according to deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of a right understanding, both to will and to do according to the good motions of Reason.' These general sentiments of Mr. Howes are, no doubt, very just, though oddly enough expressed. The question is, whether a beam in his own eye does not prevent his seeing a mote in that of another.
So far am I, according to Mr. Howes, from being a searcher after truth, or loving the light, that I rejoice in darkness, and wish to be covered with it. Speaking of my representation of the sense of Epiphanius, he says, "Such a conduct tends only to introduce confusion. This, however, may be more acceptable than perspicuity, to those whose best evidence for their assertions is, Let the darkness cover us.""+ On this occasion I shall only seriously say, that if this account of my views be true, if I do wish that darkness may cover me, the dreadful imprecation will be fulfilled. Though Mr. Howes has taken much pains to represent me as an unbeliever in Christianity, and a secret enemy to it, I am, gentlemen, a serious believer in it; and I hope that both my writings and my conduct will shew, to the unprejudiced, that I truly respect it, and that I shall never violate the spirit and precepts of it so much as Mr. Howes has done in this most unchristian insinuation.
Besides charging me with a total disregard to truth, Mr. Howes more than insinuates that my principal motive in writing is to get possession of the tithes, and other emo. luments, of the Established Church. My "most serious inquiries," he says, "are often interlarded with warm ejaculations, which betray a longing wish after tithes, &c. Is this consistent in those who profess only a regard for
Appendix, pp. 14, 15. (P.)
† Ibid. p. 122. (P.)
truth?" Quoting some expressions of mine, he says, "Such language may be suitable to the party zeal of a sectary, who makes it his business to fight against establishments unless he can partake of them; as I have shewn from his own words that Dr. Priestley wishes to do. But this is not consistent with my own views or practice."+
Now, gentlemen, if any credit be due to my uniform professions, or to my conduct, I wish, and shall do my endeavour towards effecting, the utter downfal of all ecclesiastical establishments, together with their tithes, and every thing else belonging to them. Other writers upbraid me with my violence on this subject. Besides, if I really were what Mr. Howes represents me to be, no believer in Christianity, and destitute of all regard to truth, why might not one establishment suit my purpose as well as another; and why have I applied no part of that address and assiduity which are generally ascribed to me, to get some preferment in the church? Considering my connexions, few persons will doubt but that, if this had been my object, I might have made a better provision for myself in the church, than I am likely to make out of it.
But how is it that Mr. Howes proves that my intention is to get possession of the tithes, &c., from my own words? It is as follows: Having expressed my wish, as I frequently have done, for the utter abolishing of all establishments, I mentioned, in my late Discourse on Free Inquiry,‡ a more equitable mode of establishing Christianity, which might be adopted in preference to the present; saying, "The most equitable thing-would, no doubt, be to allow Unitarians, or any other description of men, the use of a church,-when their proportion of the tithes, &c., would be sufficient for the maintenance of a minister of their persuasion." Again, in my Sermon preached at Leeds, [1773,] I say, "All who are interested in the support of these anti-christian establishments, which usurp an undue authority over the consciences of men, and whose wealth and power are advanced by them, are, at this very time, in a state of general consternation, &c."§ By a comparison of the above two passages," Mr. Howes says, "it appears that Dr. Priestley would not consider establishments as anti-christian, in case the power and wealth of the Unitarians were advanced by them, and that such an establishment would not be to usurp an undue authority over
* Appendix, p. 3. (P.)
+ Ibid. pp. 12, 13. (P.)
In his Reflections annexed to the Discourse in 1785. See Appendix, No. XIII. § See Vol. XV. p. 26.
the consciences of men. For, what authority has an orthodox establishment at present over the consciences of men, except the influence arising from what he elsewhere calls the present exclusive advantages of establishments ?"
If you, gentlemen, can see the force of this reasoning, you are better skilled in the art of logic than 1 pretend to be. The fair construction of the passages, without any help from my most unequivocal language elsewhere, is, that all ecclesiastical establishments are anti-christian; that all of them usurp an undue authority over the consciences of men; and that, instead of wishing to partake of their emoluments, I shall rejoice in their downfal; but that, if they cannot be taken down altogether, it might be better to fix them on a broader basis, so that they might comprehend all the serious professors of Christianity, Unitarians as well as others, which is actually the case in North-America. Mr. Howes, by his imprudence and intemperate zeal, is, unknown to himself, contributing more to the discredit, and consequently to the downfal, of the church establishment of this country, than I am doing; and if abler and better advised men do not interfere, and better measures be not adopted, the ruin of it will be accomplished much sooner than I had ventured to expect. But I am not so violent a reformer as to wish to imitate the members of the Church of England, when they made the Act of Uniformity; in consequence of which two thousand conscientious ministers were deprived of their livings, and many exchanged them for prisons. I would not deprive any man of his present emolument, but would secure it to him for his life, even that which Dr. Horsley has gained for his important services in writing against myself.
Having descanted upon my Dedication, Mr. Howes condescends to bestow some reflections on my title page, ridiculing my professing myself "a philosopher," as my "title page," he says, "sets forth in full show; although, indeed, little will be found within correspondent to real philosophy, except hard words."§ Then, in his Note, he recites those additions to my name, which you will find in the titlepage of these Letters, in the use of which, as it is the universal practice, I was not aware of there being any thing reprehensible. Not one of the foreign titles was directly, or
* Appendix, p. 3, Note. (P.)
To Mrs. Rayner, Vol. VI.
↑ See Vol. X. p. 411.
AC. IMP. PETROP. R. PARIS. HOLM. TAURIN. AUREL. MED. PARIS. HARLEM. CANTAB. AMERIC. ET PHILAD. SOCIUS.