The Evidence for a Future Period of Improvement in the State of Mankind
Matthew vi. 10
Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. These words, being a part of the Lord's prayer, must be perfectly familiar to you. It is evident that by the kingdom mentioned in them is meant, not that absolute dominion of the Deity by which he does whatever he pleases in the Armies of Heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, but that moral kingdom which consists in the voluntary obedience of reasonable beings to his laws and, particularly, that kingdom of the Messiah which our Saviour came to establish.
The same kingdom is undoubtedly here meant with that which we are told in the Gospel history the apostles went about preaching every where and declaring to be at hand, which the Jews at the time this prayer was framed were impatiently expecting, and which in their religious services they were continually praying for in the words, May his kingdom reign. May the Messiah come, and deliver his people.
This kingdom is described in the prophecy of Daniel under the character of a kingdom which the God of heaven was to set up in the time of the fourth temporal kingdom upon earth (or the Roman empire) and which was to be given to the Son of Man, and to increase gradually till it broke in pieces all other kingdoms, and filled the whole earth. In the prophecy of the seventy weeks the very time of the commencement of this kingdom is fixed, and it appears evidently that the phrases, kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven, which the Jews used to signify the reign of their Messiah and by which it is expressed in the New Testament, were derived from these prophetical representations in Daniel.
This petition, therefore, in our Lord's prayer referred primarily to the introduction of the Christian religion among mankind. His disciples were directed by it and by the petition that follows it (thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven) to pray that the advent of his kingdom might be speedy, that the Gospel might soon be established in the world, that the virtue which it was fitted to inspire might take place every where, and mortal men be taught to regard God's will with a submission resembling that of the heavenly spirits. We cannot express before the Deity any desires that are more reasonable and important. The establishment of Christ's kingdom includes in it the enjoyment of the highest blessings that can be communicated to the world. It is a kingdom of light, and peace, and virtue. It is the beginning and foundation of an everlasting kingdom in the heavens. The subjects of it are fellow-citizens with angels and heirs of a glorious immortality. With the utmost ardour then might the apostles and first disciples pray for the coming of this kingdom, and nothing can now be a juster object of the prayers of Christians. For I cannot be of the opinion of those of our dissenting brethren who scruple using this prayer, from an apprehension that the words (thy kingdom come) cannot be used with propriety now the kingdom of Christ is come and the grace of the Gospel made known to men. The truth is that there is a kingdom of Christ still to come. You should recollect that there are two comings of Christ's kingdom mentioned in the Scriptures, one partial and the other universal, and that though the former is past, yet we may with the utmost reason pray for the latter, and for that better state of things upon earth which our Lord expresses, by doing the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven.
Hitherto, the kingdom of the Messiah has been in its infancy. The most glorious period of it is yet future. His religion is now confined to a few nations. It will hereafter extend itself over all nations. It is now dishonoured by much contention, superstition, and wickedness. Hereafter, it is to be cleared of these evils and to triumph over all false religions. Hitherto, it has caused the will of God to be done but very imperfectly. Hereafter, it will cause the will of God to be done on earth, as it is done in heaven. The light it has hitherto produced has been like the dawn of the morning. It will hereafter produce a bright day over the whole earth. In other words, and to use our Lord's comparison in the parable of the grain of mustard seed, the kingdom of heaven has hitherto resembled a small seed germinating under ground. A period is coming in which it will throw off all that encumbers it, and grow up to a tree large enough for the birds of the air to lodge among its branches.
That such a state of Christianity lies before us between this and the end of time, or, that there is a progressive improvement in human affairs which will terminate in greater degrees of light and virtue and happiness than have been yet known appears to me highly probable and my present business will be to represent to you the nature, the grounds, and the uses of this expectation. In doing this I shall first state the evidence which makes it probable, after which I shall be naturally led to take notice of the means by which it is to be accomplished and the encouragement it gives us in our exertions to promote the improvement of the world and, particularly, in that undertaking which occasions the present service.
The evidence on which the expectation I have mentioned rests is taken, partly from tradition and scripture, and partly from reason and the necessary tendencies of things, confirmed by what we know of the past and see of the present state of the world.
There has been a tradition which has led Jews and Pagans (as well as Christians) to expect that the last ages of the world will be ages of improvement and happiness. This tradition is so ancient and has been so general that there is, I think, some regard due to it. But it is of little consequence compared with the declarations of scripture on this subject. These are clear and decisive. I have just mentioned a parable of our Lord's which directs our views to a future enlargement of his kingdom. To the same purpose is his comparison of his kingdom to a particle of leaven which worked gradually and insensibly in a large quantity of meal till the whole was leavened. St. Paul speaks in very plain language of a time when the fullness of the Gentiles shall come in, and all Israel be saved.
Isaiah prophesies that, in the latter days, the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and all nations flock into it, and the Lord shall judge among the nations, and they shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. The same prophet, in the eleventh and sixth chapters, foretells that under the reign of the Messiah the Lord would create new heavens and a new earth. The people of the Jews, should he all righteous, and inhabit their land for ever. The wolf should dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid, and the lion eat straw with the ox, and the earth he filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Daniel, in a passage already quoted, tells us that the kingdom of the Messiah was to break in pieces all other kingdoms, and to encrease till it filled the whole earth. In the seventh chapter he gives a particular account of a tyrannical power which was to appear after the fall of the Roman empire, and which, after continuing a limited time, was to be destroyed and to be succeeded by an universal kingdom which should never be destroyed. This kingdom, according to Daniel's representation, is to be the fifth and last universal monarchy on earth, and he describes it under the character of the reign of the saints; that is, of an empire of reason and liberty and virtue which is to follow despotism, ignorance, and wickedness. I beheld, says he till the beast (that is, the tyrannical power just mentioned) was destroyed and given to the burning flame. And then came the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven, and there was given him dominion and glory that all men and languages should serve him, and the kingdom and dominion and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, was delivered to the people of the saints of the Most High. In the last chapter of this prophecy we have the remarkable declaration that at the time of the end (till which time Daniel represents himself as ordered to seal his words) many should run to and fro, and knowledge should be increased.
St. Paul in his second epistle to the Thessalonians assures us that the day of judgment would not come till an apostacy had taken place in the Christian church, and a man of sin had appeared in it who should exalt himself above all that is called God, and whose coming should be after the working of Satan with signs and lying wonders, but whom the Lord would consume with the breath of his mouth and the brightness of his coming.
St. John tells us that the holy city (by which undoubtedly is meant the Christian church) should be trodden under foot 1260 years, at the end of which term he represents the kingdoms of this world as becoming the kingdoms of the Lord and of his Christ. The beast and the false prophet, he says, will be taken and cast into a lake of fire (that is, all antichristian corruption and oppression will be abolished), and Christ shall reign a thousand years, and the saints shall reign with him. That is, truth and righteousness shall for a long period become prevalent and mankind universally receive and acknowledge Christ as their Head and Lawgiver. I will only add our Lord's prediction in Luke xxi. 24. The Jews shall be led captive to all nations, and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles till the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. These words are very striking. They intimate to us a dispersion of the Jews for a certain period, the preservation of them through that period, and some great revolution in the state of the Gentiles at the end of it. It is evident that these predictions in the Old and New Testaments have the same events in view, nor is it possible with any appearance of reason to apply them to any events which have already happened. Certainly, the stone mentioned by Daniel which was cut out of the mountain without hands (that is, without the aid of human power) has not yet filled the whole earth. That man of sin who was to usurp the prerogatives of the Deity and to deceive the world with lying miracles, has not yet been destroyed by the brightness of our Lord's second coming. The knowledge of the Lord has not yet covered the earth as the waters fill the channels of the sea. The universal empire of reason and virtue has not yet been established, nor have all the people and nations been yet brought to serve the Son of Man. War has not yet been excluded from the world, nor has liberty taken place of tyranny, knowledge of ignorance, and sanctity of vice and corruption. To such a happy termination of human affairs in this world, next to the happiness of the heavenly state, the Scriptures point our views, and it is an argument in their favour that they do give us an expectation so animating amidst the variety of gloomy prospects with which this world, in its present state, is often presenting us, for it is an expectation no less credible and probable in itself than it is encouraging. This is what I shall now proceed to shew you.
Almost every object in nature grows up gradually from a weak and low to a mature and improved state of being. The condition of mankind, in particular, has been hitherto improving. At first they were rude and ignorant. In time several of the arts were discovered. Civilization and agriculture began and governments were established. By degrees the arts were improved. New ones were discovered and better forms of government were established, and in the present aera of the world it is evident that the life of man appears with greater dignity than ever, and that in consequence of a vast variety of successive improvements and additions produced by them in the sources of human enjoyment, there is the same difference between the state of our species now and its state at first as there is between a youth approaching to manhood and a child just born.
It deserves particular consideration here that it is the nature of improvement to increase itself. Every advance in it lifts mankind higher and makes them more capable of farther advances, nor are there, in this case, any limits beyond which knowledge and improvement cannot be carried. And for this reason discoveries may, for aught we know, be made in future time which, like the discoveries of the mechanical arts and the mathematical sciences in past time, may exalt the powers of men and improve their state to a degree which will make future generations as much superior to the present as the present are to the past. Let us here look back again.
At the first establishment of civil society man was an animal, naked in body and mind, running about in the woods or tending cattle, destitute of arts and laws and ideas. From this low condition he has risen to be the animal we now see him, to command the powers of nature, to fertilize the earth, to traverse the ocean, and to measure the distances and magnitudes of the sun and planets. His progress to this state has been irregular and various. Ages of improvement have been followed by ages of barbarism, and the several climates of the earth have felt the vicissitudes of knowledge and ignorance just as they have of light and darkness. Yet what has been lost in one place, or at one time, has been gained in another, and an age of darkness and barbarism has been succeeded by ages of improvement more rapid than any that preceded them. There was a time when no man was what whole countries are now. And there may come a time when every country will be what many are now, and when some will be advanced to a state much higher.
Nothing can direct us better in judging of the manner in which future improvements are likely to proceed than reflecting on the course of human improvement as it has hitherto taken place. I cannot illustrate what I now mean better than by instancing in natural philosophy.
The highest state of philosophical and astronomical knowledge was, at the beginning of this century, that which it had attained by the discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton. But it had been the work of many ages to prepare mankind for these, and to bring the world to a capacity of understanding and receiving them. To a few wise men above two thousand years ago there appeared some glimmerings of this philosophy, but they were disregarded and soon lost. A barbarous philosophy, called the Peripatetic, prevailed after this for a long period. The inventor of it (like the Pope in the Christian church) was set up as an universal master, and the most wretched jargon was received implicitly for true science. It is scarcely possible to describe the state of darkness with respect to the knowledge of nature in which the world was involved during this whole time. About two centuries ago a glimmering of light again appeared, and a more rational philosophy began to gain ground. The light gradually increased. One great genius rose after another, and one discovery produced further discoveries. A Bacon was followed by a Boyle, and a Boyle by a Newton. Each of these prepared the way for his successor, and the last (the pride and glory of this country, and a name with which no names of kings and princes deserve to be thought of) the last, I say, has struck out a glorious light. He extended on every side the boundaries of science, subjected light itself to dissection, and with a sagacity never before known among mortals unfolded the laws which govern the solar system. Such, however, were the prejudices in favour of former systems of philosophy that even his philosophy, though founded on experiment and demonstration, was not immediately received. For many years it encountered much opposition, but at last it made its way. Foreign nations came over to it, and it is now the philosophy of the world. A state of philosophy so improved could not take place soon among mankind. It was necessarily reserved for an advanced age of the world. What is now known of the relation of this earth to the sun, and of the order of the heavenly bodies, is so contrary to vulgar prejudices and seems to be so contradicted by the testimony of our senses, that had it been proposed, even to the philosophers of Greece and Rome, they would probably have scouted it as much as they did Christianity. False systems of philosophy have occasioned a more thorough examination of philosophical subjects, and their detection has given greater weight and stability to the true philosophy, for truth always shines brighter and stands firmer after growing out of the ruins of error, and an error once prevalent and afterwards detected is never likely to recover itself.
These observations are applicable with strict propriety to the natural course of improvement in religious knowledge, and, particularly, the knowledge of genuine Christianity and its spread among mankind. Till the time of our Saviour the world had been too much in its infancy to be capable of admitting more of the knowledge of Christianity than could be communicated by obscure hints, and a succession of dark preparatory dispensations. And even in the ages immediately following the time of our Saviour, it was by no means ripe for that universal prevalency of Christianity which we expect hereafter. The prejudices of mankind were then of such a nature, and the doctrines of the gospel so much out of the road of their ideas, that had it prevailed every where it must have prevailed in a very imperfect form, and an adulteration of it by the false learning and philosophy of the times was unavoidable. For these reasons it might be necessary that at first there should be only a partial propagation of it, and that its more general establishment should be deferred till the world was more improved and therefore more capable of properly understanding it, till sufficient time had been allowed for a full discussion of its doctrines, till the completion of prophecy became an argument for it so striking as to be irresistible, till the system of nature and the plans of Providence should be laid more open to our views, and there should be a possibility of establishing it among mankind in such purity and with such evidence as should leave no danger of further adulterations of it.
It appears, therefore, that the same preparation of ages which is required to bring about advances in philosophical knowledge is required also in religious knowledge. We are apt to be hasty and impatient. We should learn to wait till seeds have had time to grow and to produce crops. The government of the Deity proceeds gradually and slowly. As He does not bring the individuals of the human race on the stage of mature life before they have been duly prepared for it by passing through the instruction and discipline of infancy and childhood, so neither does he bring the species to that finished state of dignity and happiness for which it is intended without a similar introduction and education.
Religious improvement must be expected to keep pace with other improvements. There is a connexion between all the different branches of knowledge which render this necessary. It would be strange, indeed, if men were not likely to understand religion best when they understood best all other subjects, or if an increase of general knowledge only left us more in the dark in theology. This is what those of our brethren who will admit of no new lights in religion would have us believe. But nothing can be more unreasonable. The age of polite literature in antient Greece and Rome was likewise the age when general knowledge prevailed most, and the period of the revival of letters in these last ages was also the period of the reformation from Popery; and in like manner it must be expected, notwithstanding all the obstacles which the friends of old establishments endeavour to throw in the way, that the present period of more knowledge than ever yet existed in the world will produce a farther reformation.
It is observable that the Scriptures place the downfall of Antichrist before the commencement of the universal kingdom of the Messiah. This must be the order in which these events will happen. It would be absurd to imagine that Christianity, in its corrupt state, will ever become the universal religion. Previously to this it must lose that connection with civil power which has debased it, and which now in almost every Christian country turns it into a scheme of worldly emolument and policy, and supports error and superstition under the name of it. The absurdities fathered upon it must be exploded and it must be displayed to the world in its native and original excellence. Then only will it be fit to triumph over false religions and to reform and bless all nations.
The observations now made may be of use in assisting you to form just ideas of the progressive course of human improvement. Such has it hitherto been, and such the natures of things assure us it must continue to be. Like a river into which, as it flows, new currents are continually discharging themselves, it must increase till it becomes a wide-spreading stream, fertilizing and enriching all countries, and covering the earth as the waters cover the sea.
I will here point out to you briefly a few circumstances in the present state of the world which indicates [sic] a farther progress and are particularly encouraging.
First, in philosophical knowledge great advances have been lately made. New fields of philosophy have been opened since the time of Sir Isaac Newton. Our ideas of the extent and grandeur of the universe have been carried much farther than he carried mem, and facts in the system of nature discovered which could they have been intimated to him would have been pronounced by him impossible. Standing on his shoulders and assisted by his discoveries we see farther than he did. How daring then would be the man who should say that our successors will not see farther than we do?
This increase of natural knowledge must be accompanied with more enlarged views and liberal sentiments in religion, and we find that this has been its effect. There is, indeed, no circumstance in the present state of the world which promises more than the liberality in religion which is now prevailing. God be thanked, the burning times are gone, and a conviction of the reasonableness of universal toleration is spreading fast. Juster notions also of the origin and end of civil government are making way, and an experiment is now making by our brethren on the other side of the Atlantic of the last consequence, and to which every friend of the human race must wish success. There a total separation of religion from civil policy has taken place which will probably read a lesson to the world that will do it infinite service. Alliances between church and state and slavish hierarchies are losing credit, long experience having taught their mischief. The nature of religious liberty is better understood than ever. In the last century those who cried out the loudest for it meant only liberty for themselves because the advocates of truth. But there is now a conviction prevailing that all encroachments on the right of conscience are pernicious and impious, that the proper office of the civil magistrate is to maintain peace, not to support truth. To defend the properties of men, not to take care of their souls. And to protect equally all honest citizens of all persuasions, not to set up one religious sect above another.
Sentiments so reasonable must continue to spread. They promise an open and free stage for discussion and general harmony among the professors of Christianity. O happy time! when bigotry shall no more persecute the sincere enquirer, and every one shall tolerate as he would wish to be himself tolerated. When mankind shall love one another as brethren amidst their religious differences, and human authority in religion be exploded. When civil governors shall know their duty and employ their power for its proper purpose. When the sacred blessing of liberty shall meet with no restraint except when used to injure itself, and all shall be allowed without the fear of losing any rights to profess and practise that mode of faith and worship which they shall think most acceptable to their Maker. Then will come to pass the prophecy of Isaiah, (before recited to you) The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid, and the lion eat straw with the ox, the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and they shall not hurt or destroy in all the earth.
I might now, would the time allow, proceed to recite many other important circumstances in the state of the world which are preparations for that revolution in favour of human happiness which is the object of this discourse. Such as the alleviation of the horrors of war occasioned by the spread of the principles of humanity, and the encouragement arising from hence (and also from the growing conviction of the folly as well as the iniquity of wars) to expect a time when nation shall no more lift up a sword against nation. The softened spirit of Popery, and the visible decline of the papal power. The extinction of the order of Jesuits, and the demolition of convents and monasteries. The shutting of the doors of the infernal inquisition, and the ceasing of acts of faith. The extended intercourse between the different parts of the world and the facility of the diffusion of knowledge created first by the invention of the art of printing, but now carried farther than ever by the increase of commerce and the improvements in the art of navigation. The establishment, at this moment going forward, of an equal representation of the different provinces of France, and the tendencies to it in some of the other countries of Europe. All these circumstances (and many more might be mentioned) render the present state of the world unspeakably different from what it was. They shew us man a milder animal than he was, and the world outgrowing its evils, superstition giving way, antichrist falling, and the Millennium hastening.
Having stated to you the evidence for the doctrine which is the subject of this discourse, I shall now proceed to what I next proposed when I entered upon it. I mean, to take notice of the means by which that happy termination of affairs on this globe which I have been representing is to be brought about. The observations I have made plainly point out to us these means and, therefore, I have, in some measure, anticipated myself on this subject. There are, however, some of these means which I must not omit to recall to your remembrance and to which it is necessary that, on the present occasion, I should more particularly direct your attention.
In general, it is obvious that this end is to be brought about by the operations of Providence concurring with those tendencies to improvement which I have observed to be inseparable from the nature of man. Often Providence works for this end by bringing good out of evil, and making use of human passions to accomplish purposes contrary to those at which they aimed. It would be easy to mention many instances of this. The end of persecutors is to prevent the spread of heterodox opinions, but, instead of answering this end, it generally gives such opinions a wider spread. The progress of Christianity has been assisted in this way, for it is a very just observation that the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the church. The political views of princes have often, and are now remarkably operating in the same way. The passions of King Henry the 8th, were the means of introducing that period of light and reformation in this country to which we owe our present liberty and happiness. The writings of unbelievers have done service to the Christian religion by causing a stricter enquiry into its evidence and clearing it of the rubbish which has been thrown upon it and the false doctrines which have been mingled with it. And I am greatly mistaken if the obstinacy with which abuses so gross as to be palpable to all the world are retained, in the present age and even in this country, will not in the end prove a great public benefit by causing a more quick and complete overthrow of them and of the establishments that support them, and thus giving a better opportunity for the introduction of establishments favourable to truth and liberty and virtue.
Such are the secret and indirect means by which Providence often carries on its ends. But, in the present case, the most common means which it employs are the investigations and active exertions of enlightened and honest men. These are aimed directly at the melioration of the world and without them it would soon degenerate. It is the blessing of God on the disquisitions of reason and the labours of virtue, united to the invisible directions of his Providence, that must bring on the period I have in view. Inactivity and sleep are fatal to improvement. It is only (as the prophet Daniel speaks) by running to and fro, that is, by diligent enquiry, by free discussion and the collision of different sentiments, that knowledge can be increased, truth struck out, and the dignity of our species promoted. Every one of us ought to co-operate with his neighbours in this great work, and to contribute all he can to instruct and reform his fellow-creatures. His power may be little, but this is no reason against exerting it as far as it will go. The less his power is, the more anxious he should be to employ that little, and not to suffer any part of it to be lost. There are none who have not some degree of power. The rich may help by their fortunes; the great by their influence; the poor by their labour, and the learned by their instruction and counsel. And were all to contribute all they can in these different ways, much would be done and the world would make swift advances to a better state.
The observations I have made shew that our exertions for this purpose ought more especially to be directed to the following points.
First, an improvement in the state of civil government. The dispositions and manners of men depend more than we can well conceive on the nature of the government to which they are subject. There is nothing so debasing as despotic government. They convert the governed into beasts and the men who govern into demons. Free governments, on the contrary, exalt the human character. They give a feeling of dignity and consequence to the governed, and to the governors a feeling of responsibility which has a tendency to keep them within the bounds of their duty, and to teach them that they are more properly the servants of the public than its governors. Much study has been employed, and much pains taken, to find out the best forms of government. Nor is there any subject on which the human understanding can employ itself much more usefully. Many improvements remain to be made and it should be the business of wise and good men to investigate them, and to throw as much light as possible on a subject so interesting to human happiness. I cannot help taking this opportunity to remove a very groundless suspicion with respect to myself by adding that so far am I from preferring a government purely republican, that I look upon our own constitution of government as better adapted than any other to this country, and in theory excellent. I have said in theory, for, in consequence of the increase of corruption and the miserable inadequateness of our representation, it is chiefly the theory and form of our constitution that we possess, and this I reckon our first and worst and greatest grievance. We have been the most distinguished people under heaven. Lately our glory has been eclipsed. But could we, in this instance, turn the form into the reality (the shadow into the substance) we might recover our former rank, and, with the aid of strong measures for reducing our debts, rise, perhaps, to greater glory than ever.
But, I must hasten to what I meant next to mention as an object necessary to be attended to by the enlightened part of mankind, in order to improve the world. I mean, gaining an open field for discussion, by excluding from it the interposition of civil power, except to keep the peace, by separating religion from civil policy, and emancipating the human mind from the chains of church-authority and church-establishments. Till this can be effected, the worst impediments to improvement will remain. The period to which I have been carrying your views must, as I have before observed to you, be preceded by the downfall of all slavish and antichristian hierarchies. These let at present, and they will let till they are taken away. They are, by certain prophecy, destined to destruction. The liberality of the times has already loosened their foundations. The obstinacy of their adherents is increasing their danger, and the wise and virtuous of all descriptions should make themselves willing instruments in the hands of Providence to hasten their removal, not by any methods of violence, but by the diffusion of knowledge and the quiet influence of reason and conviction.
Thirdly, another great object which the friends of reformation ought to attend to is an improvement in the state of education. The importance of education has been so well represented to you by my excellent friend and brother, Dr. Kippis, in the discourse he delivered to you in this place last year, that it is needless for me to dwell much upon it. Nothing, certainly, can be of more importance. Seminaries of learning are the springs of society which, as they flow foul or pure, diffuse through successive generations depravity and misery, or, on the contrary, virtue and happiness. On the bent given to our minds as they open and expand depends their subsequent fate, and on the general management of education depend the honour and dignity of our species. This is a subject with which we are far from being sufficiently acquainted. I often think there may remain a secret in it to be discovered which will contribute more than any thing to the amendment of mankind, and he who should advance one step towards making this discovery would deserve better of the world, than all the learned scholars and professors who have hitherto existed.
The course of improvement, when it has once begun, is (like the motion of a descending body) an accelerated course. One improvement produces other improvements, and these others, and for this reason there may be improvements, apparently little, which may lead to so many more as to be, in their consequences, like the opening of new senses among mankind. There is great encouragement in this consideration. It shews us that the greatest good may arise from the slightest degree of real improvement which we can produce by our exertions, and it should, therefore, quicken our zeal in all such exertions. This observation is, perhaps, more applicable to the subject of education than any other. Improvement, in this case, must be in the highest degree useful. It has a particular tendency to perpetuate itself and may, however inconsiderable at first, increase so far as to bring about an universal reformation. A set of gentlemen, let us suppose, well-informed and of liberal sentiments, see and lament the defects and abuses in the common modes of education. They resolve to try the effect of a new plan. They unite their influence and their contributions for this purpose. They found a college, small perhaps in its origin and narrow in its extent, but wise in its regulations. The care with which it is super-intended and the excellence of its discipline make it an asylum in which young men are saved from the contagion to which they are exposed in other seminaries, and from which they go out, well-instructed and well-principled, to be a comfort to their parents, an honour to their teachers, and blessings to society.
This soon engages general attention and draws to it greater encouragement, in consequence of which it extends its beneficial influence through a wider circle. The example kindles zeal in others and gives rise to institutions formed on plans still more extensive and improved. One generation thus improved communicates improvement to the next, and that to the next, till at last a progress in improvement may take place rapid and irresistible which may issue in the happiest state of things that can exist on this earth. It cannot be amiss for the gentlemen to whom I am addressing myself to fancy themselves in the situation now described. Should it lead them to entertain a delusive expectation, it is a pleasing one, and they will have their reward. The success to which it carries their views is at least the tendency and the possible effect of their exertions. They have, hitherto, been encouraged beyond their expectations, and they have reason to look forward to greater encouragement. Let it appear that they are likely to improve the state of education, and to sow the seeds of Catholicism, virtue and rational piety in the kingdom, and there cannot be a doubt but they will receive all the support they can wish for. And who knows what a glorious service they may in the end perform? I feel, indeed, more and more of a hope that they are laying the foundation of an institution which will gather strength for a long period, and cause multitudes in future times to rise up and call them blessed.
One of the best effects which I expect from it is an extension of that Catholicism which I have just mentioned, and of a spirit of candour and benevolence. The common effect of education has hitherto been the reverse of this. It has taught a gloomy and sour, instead of a manly and benevolent, religion, a religion consisting in a blind attachment to rites and forms and mysteries, and not in an impartial enquiry after truth, in the love of God and his creatures, and the practice of all that is worthy from a regard to the moral government of the Deity and a future judgment. This has produced some of the worst consequences and, particularly, that odium theologicum (that rancour of ecclesiastics) which, because surpassing in virulence all other rancour, has been long proverbial. There is, as I have before observed, less of this than there used to be in the world. But too much of it remains, nor will it be ever totally abolished till a conviction becomes universal of the following truth. 'That nothing is very important except an honest mind, nothing fundamental except righteous practice, and a sincere desire to know and do the will of God.' I wish earnestly I could be, in any degree, the means of propagating this conviction. There is nothing by which any one can better serve the essential interests of society. The institution which occasions the present service will, I hope, do much good in this way. It is intended for the purpose of providing that denomination of Protestant Dissenters to which we belong, with a succession of able and useful ministers. And this is of no less importance than the existence of our dissent from the established church, a dissent which, in my opinion, is derived from the best reasons, from a dislike of the creed as well as the ceremonies of the church from a regard to Christ as the only lawgiver in his kingdom, and the rejection of all human authority in religion and, above all, from a conviction that the only proper object of our religious worship is that one undivided and self-existent Being and cause of all causes who sent Christ into the world, and who is his God and Father, no less than he is our God and father. These are reasons which give the cause we wish to support a dignity not to be expressed, and render the preservation of it our duty by all the means that are consistent with the respect we owe to our brethren of different sentiments, and, particularly, by the establishment of an institution, like the present, for educating ministers.
But the education of ministers is far from being the only end of this institution. It is, (as the public has been informed in our printed reports) farther intended for the education of youth in general at that period of approach to mature life when they are most liable to seduction, and most in danger of taking a wrong turn.
In carrying on this undertaking the first aim of its conductors will be undoubtedly to attach young minds as much as possible to virtue, and at the same time to communicate to them such instruction as shall be best fitted to assist them in judging for themselves, and to engage them to unite liberality and humility, to piety, zeal, and learning.
The best education is that which does this most effectually; which impresses the heart most with the love of virtue and communicates the most expanded and ardent benevolence; which gives the deepest consciousness of the fallibility of the human understanding and preserves from that vile dogmatism so prevalent in the world; which makes men diffident and modest, attentive to evidence, capable of proportioning their assent to the degree of it, quick in discerning it, and determined to follow it; which, in short, instead of producing acute casuists, conceited pedants, or furious polemics, produces fair enquirers endowed with that heavenly wisdom described by St. James, which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. An education so conducted is the only means of gaining free scope for the progress of truth, of exterminating the pitiful prejudices we indulge against one another, and of establishing peace on earth and good will amongst men.
Think here of the effects of education as commonly managed. Its business is to teach a learning which puffs up and which must be unlearnt before reason can acquire its just influence. Instead of opening it contracts. Instead of enlightening, it darkens, and, by giving a notion of sacredness in disputable doctrines and stuffing the mind with prejudices, incapacitates for the reception of real wisdom and makes men think it their duty to silence, to imprison, and perhaps to kill one another in order to do God service. Such was the effect of education in our Saviour's time among Jews and Pagans. It made self-righteous Pharisees, ostentatious disputants, proud sophists, and cruel persecutors, zealous for the absurdities of superstition and idolatry, and furnished with skill to defend them and to resist conviction. And the consequence was that, not suspecting the necessity of knowing themselves fools before they could be wise, they rejected with disdain the instruction of the Gospel, and that the poorest and plainest men who had never been taught in their schools, or been perverted by the false learning of the times, entered into the kingdom of God before them. It is in this circumstance that our Lord's thanksgiving in Matth. xi. 25. is grounded. I thank thee, O father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them unto babes. Let the conductors of this institution take care to avoid this error. Let it be their study to form men who shall, in Christ's sense, be babes rather than wise and prudent, that is, who shall possess the modesty, lowliness, and teachable simplicity of children, rather than the pride and dogmaticalness of men who, having been educated in colleges, think themselves wise and learned, but whose learning produces a worse entanglement of the understanding than common men are subject to, and is nothing but deeper ignorance and more inveterate prejudice. This is the great advantage by which I wish this institution to be distinguished, and it is an advantage which it must possess if your present views are carried into execution. It is to be formed on an open and liberal plan. Our two universities are fortresses created for the security and preservation of the church of England, and defended for that purpose by tests and subscriptions. Most of the seminaries also among ourselves are intended for conveying instruction in the particular systems of the sects that support them, and for making Baptists, Independents, Calvinists, and orthodox believers. The founders of this institution, while they neglect no proper means of making good scholars and enlightened philosophers, will, I doubt not, be anxious above all things about making good men, upright citizens, and honest and candid believers.
This is a design that all must approve who do not think that the truth having been happily found out and established in this kingdom two hundred years ago, nothing remains to be done but to support it and to adopt measures for maintaining the belief of it, and for creating an inviolable attachment to it. Thus did Jews and Pagans think in our Saviour's time, and, therefore, rejected the divine light of Christianity. Thus do Mahometans and Papists now think of their national establishments, and, therefore, continue in darkness and superstition. Is it credible that like consequences should not arise from like sentiments in this country? Is it not as proper in us, as it would be in them, to suspect our public creeds and forms? Can it be imagined that we have reached a degree of perfection which renders farther enquiry needless? I am indeed much mistaken if some very great errors do not still make a part of our national faith. This is at least possible, and this possibility is a sufficient reason for maintaining an openness to conviction with respect to it. Should such errors exist, and the reformed churches themselves want reformation, institutions for liberalizing education must do infinite good by being the means of detecting them. But should they not exist still the best consequences must follow. It will appear that our national code of faith and worship can stand the test of examination. It will gain credit and find a more honourable support than that authority of fallible men and that interference of secular power in religion, which have hitherto, almost everywhere, supported nothing but imposture, superstition and idolatry.
It may be objected that the liberality in education which I have recommended will have a tendency to set men loose from all principles. The observation I have just made proves this to be an unreasonable apprehension. The best way, certainly, of attaching men to true principles is to enable them to examine impartially all principles. Every truth that is necessary to be believed and really sacred, must be attended with the clearest evidence. Free enquiry can be hostile to nothing but absurdity and bigotry. It is only falshood and delusion which fly from discussion and chuse to skulk in the dark.
But I am in danger of wandering beyond the proper purpose of this discourse. Let me now recall briefly to your attention some of the reasons which should quicken your zeal in the great work you have undertaken. I have already taken notice of its great importance. Forming youthful and tender minds to virtue, and pointing their ambition to that moral excellence and resemblance of the Deity which alone constitute true honour and dignity; directing their faculties as they open, and checking in them the risings of criminal passions; assisting them in the acquisition of valuable knowledge, and teaching them habits of patience, modesty, candour, and self-government; guarding them against the influence of the foolish prejudices which blind mankind; and preparing them by judicious discipline and instruction for an easy admission of the light of truth, and thus contributing to the progressive improvement of the world, the enlargement of Christ's kingdom, and the arrival of a period when the will of God will be done on earth, as it is in heaven; this, brethren, this is a work of the noblest and highest nature. Angels can hardly be more usefully or honourably employed.
But consider next the need there is of your exertions in this instance. It is a narrow and ill-managed education that keeps up discord and malevolence, and that produces most of the evils of life. It is this that is continually sending out into the world coxcombs, pedants, bigots, despots, and libertines to debase the dignity of man, to embroil society, and to perpetuate ignorance, vice and slavery. The smallest degree of success in an attempt to correct these evils by an improvement in the state of education would be an ample reward for the greatest trouble and expence that could attend it. The inattention to this subject which has prevailed is no less astonishing than melancholy. When the resolution was taken to establish this institution, there was but one seminary for education, after passing through the common grammar schools, to which we, as Dissenters of the denomination commonly (though improperly) called Presbyterians, could look, and even this seminary was by the founder of it intended to form Independents and Calvinists. The moderation and wisdom of its trustees and tutors have indeed given it a liberal turn and made it very useful. It is not, however, of sufficient extent to answer all our views. Being situated in the country, it wants many advantages which can be found only near the centre of the kingdom. But I will not enter on a repetition of what you have so well observed on this subject in your reports and circular letters.
Let me, therefore, desire you, in the next place, to consider the obligation under which your constant use of the words of my text lays you, and the encouragement it gives you. To pray for a benefit without using our endeavours to procure it, is a mockery of the Deity and an abuse of prayer. We are commanded to pray for our daily bread, but he that should do this, while he takes no pains to get his daily bread, would be inexcuseable. We are, therefore, bound by our use of that part of the Lord's Prayer which I have taken for my text to employ all the means in our power to cause the kingdom of God to come, and his will to be done on earth as it is done in heaven. And one of the best of all the means we can employ is, I have shewn, the establishment of such a seminary as we have now in view.
Our use of this part of the Lord's Prayer is farther an encouragement to us in employing these means. A command to pray for a blessing, implies that we shall obtain it if we use the means. In the present instance, particularly, it assures us that an extension of Christ's kingdom and an amendment of the state of the world, are blessings which lie in some degree within our reach and that our exertions for this purpose shall be favoured and succeeded.
The encouragement derived from hence is greatly increased by the doctrine on which I have been insisting. A more prosperous state of things is to take place on this earth. The stone which was cut out of the mountain without human force is hereafter to fill the whole earth, and the kingdom of the Messiah to become universal. Reason and Scripture lead to this expectation. Remember then in your endeavours to enlighten and reform mankind that you are co-operating with Providence, that the hand of God has marked out your path, and that his favour will guide and protect you. I have been shewing you how much the state of the world encourages you. A spirit of enquiry is gone forth. A disdain of the restraints imposed by tyrants on human reason prevails. A tide is set in. A favourable gale has sprung up. Let us seize the auspicious moment, obey the call of Providence, and join our helping hands to those of the friends of science and virtue. Think not, however, that you have no difficulties to encounter. It will not be strange if an alarm should be taken about the danger of the church. There is a jealousy natural to church establishments (especially when undermined by time and the spread of knowledge) which may produce such an alarm. In this case it would be a most unreasonable alarm, for if our religious establishment can bear discussion and stands on good ground as its friends must believe, what harm can be done to it by an institution, the design of which is, not to inculcate the peculiarities of any sect, but to communicate such general instruction and to promote such a spirit of enquiry and candour as shall form worthy citizens for the state and useful ministers for the church? This, however, is a consideration that will not prevent opposition. The enemies of reformation may be alarmed. Ignorance and intolerance may clamour. But their opposition cannot be successful. The liberal temper of the times must overpower them. Bigotry and superstition must vanish before increasing light. We see the clouds scattering. We live in happier times than our fore-fathers. The shades of night are departing. The day dawns, and the sun of righteousness will soon rise with healing in his wings. Let us keep our attention fixed on this reviving prospect. Animated by it, let us persevere in our exertions, knowing that, as far as we are on the side of liberty and virtue, we are on that side which must at last prevail.
Let us, however, at the same time take care not to forget a caution which I have before given and cannot too often repeat. While we proceed in our exertions with perseverance and zeal, let them be accompanied with peaceableness and dispositions perfectly charitable. Some of our fellow-Christians are eagerly maintaining a preeminence in the Christian church which Christ has prohibited, and struggling to preserve the power they claim as interpreters of Christ's laws and kings in his kingdom. They either do not see the great change that is going forward, or, if they do see it, they have not the wisdom to suit their conduct to it, and to prepare for its effects. Others of our brethren continue to hold as sacred some of the doctrines of the dark ages. The mist, which opening day is dispersing, still lurks round them. Imagining the acceptance of the Deity to be confined within the circle of their own faith, they cannot view mankind with the same satisfaction that we do. They have not yet felt the chearing power of a religion which makes nothing essential but an honest heart, and they look, perhaps, with pain on your attempts to serve the cause of truth and piety. But though, in this respect less happy than ourselves and, as we think, not so well informed, they may be truly worthy and we should learn not to condemn them whatever sentiments with respect to us a mistaken Judgment may lead them to entertain.
My own experience has induced me to speak thus to you. I have been an object of censure for actions which I consider as some of the best in my life. But being conscious that I have meant well, and believing that I have not laboured quite in vain, the censure I have met with has made no impression on me. I look back with complacency and I look forward with joy in hope of a time when those good men who now dislike me on account of the difference of our religious opinions and views will be as ready to embrace me as I am to embrace them.
Excuse this digression. I am growing too tedious, and I have gone beyond my strength. I will, therefore, conclude with directing you to carry your thoughts to another world. The period on which I have been discoursing will pass while we are silent in the grave. But through the grace of God in the great Redeemer we shall be raised up from death and enter on a new world. There a brighter scene than this world can exhibit to us in its best state will open upon us. There a government of consummate order will be established and all the faithful and worthy of all religions will be gathered into it. There peace and love will reign in full perfection, and those who, by such exertions as yours, are the means of enlarging the kingdom of Christ and causing the will of God to be done on earth as it is done in heaven, will be exalted to a happiness greater than can be now conceived, and which will never come to an end. To this happiness, may God of his infinite mercy bring us, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.
18. Much assistance in this enquiry may be derived from the Defence of the American constitutions of government, lately published by his Excellency Mr. Adams [John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (Philadelphia, 1787)] where an account is given of most of the governments that have hitherto existed, in order to prove the necessity of providing checks and balances in a constitution of government, by lodging, as is done in our own constitution, the power of legislation in more than one assembly and separating from one another the legislative, executive, and judicial powers.
19. What I here say of myself I believe to be true of the whole body of British subjects among Protestant Dissenters. I know not one individual among them who would not tremble at the thought of changing into a democracy our mixed form of government, or who has any other wish with respect to it than to restore it to purity and vigour by removing the defects in our representation, and establishing that independence of the three states on one another in which its essence consists.
20. It should be attended to that I here speak of the Presbyterian denomination of dissenters only. The whole body of Protestant dissenters consists of a great variety of different sects who have hardly one common principle of dissent. The majority of this very mixed and numerous body are, without doubt, Calvinists and Trinitarians, and therefore cannot dislike the creed of the church, and, at the beginning of this century, the same was true of even the Presbyterian dissenters. A great revolution has taken place in the opinion of this last class of dissenters: but it originated in the church itself with Sir Isaac Newton, Clarke, Hoadley, Whiston, Sykes, etc. and if from these dissenters the faith of the established church is in any danger, it must be more in danger from many of its own members. I will take this opportunity to add that there is a difference of opinion among dissenters on the subject of civil establishments of religion, some approving them in general and only disliking that particular form of religion which happens to be established in this country, while others object to all such establishments and think, as I do, that they encroach on the rights of conscience, obstruct the progress of truth, engender strife and animosity, and turn religion into a trade. The former sort of dissenters must wish to see their own religion substituted for that which is established, but the latter dread such a substitution and can have no other wish than to see all unjust preferences on account of modes of faith and worship abolished, and all honest and peaceable citizens equally protected and encouraged.
21. Never was a more important service done to the cause of religious liberty, than by the excellent Bishop Hoadley, in the controversy occasioned by a sermon in which he confuted these claims. For this sermon, (and also his opposition to a test law which stigmatizes a large body of the king's best subjects, and profanes a Christian ordinance) he was threatened with the vengeance of both houses of Convocation, but the power of government (in this case wisely applied to the restraint of clerical resentment) interposed and saved him. The issue is well known. He was promoted, and the Convocation ruined, for since that time it has never been allowed to sit to exercise its former powers. [On 31 March 1717, Hoadly preached a sermon, 'The Nature of the Kingdom of Christ', in which he argued that the Gospels give no warrant for any visible church authority. On 3 May 1717 the Lower House of Convocation appointed a Committee to examine the sermon, but before it could send its findings to the Upper House, the King prorogued Convocation. Convocation did not meet again, except formally, until 1852.]
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