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THE CLERGY, &c. *
It is impossible for me, my brethren, upon our first meeting of this kind, to forbear lamenting with you the general decay of religion in this nation; which is now observed by every one, and has been for some time the complaint of all serious persons. The influence of it is more and more wearing out of the minds of men, even of those who do not pretend to enter into speculations upon the subject; but the number of those who do, and who profess themselves unbelievers, increases, and with their numbers their zeal. Zeal! it is natural to ask-for what? Why, truly, for nothing, but against every thing that is good and sacred amongst us.
Indeed, whatever efforts are made against our religion, no Christian can possibly despair of it. For he, who has
* The publication of Bishop Butler's Charge, in the year 1751, was followed by a Pamphlet, printed in 1752, entitled, A Serious Inquiry into the Use and Importance of External Religion, occasioned by some Passages in the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Durham's Charge to the Clergy of that Diocese, &c. humbly addressed to his Lordship. This Pamphlet has been reprinted in a miscellaneous work: such parts it, as seemed most worthy of observation, the reader will find in the Notes subjoined to those passages of the Charge, to which the Pamphlet refers.
all power in heaven and earth, has promised that he will be with us to the end of the world. Nor can the present decline of it be any stumbling block to such as are considerate; since he himself has so strongly expressed what is as remarkably predicted in other passages of Scripture, the great defection from his religion which should be in the latter days, by that prophetic question, When the Son of Man cometh, shall he find faith upon the earth? How near this time is, God only knows; but this kind of Scripture signs of it is too apparent. For as different ages have been distinguished by different sorts of particular errors and vices, the deplorable distinction of ours is, an avowed scorn of religion in some, and a growing disregard to it in the generality.
As to the professed enemies of religion, I know not how often they may come in your way; but often enough, I fear, in the way of some at least amongst you, to require consideration, what is the proper behaviour towards them. One, would, to be sure, avoid great familiarities with these persons; especially if they affect to be licentious and profane in their common talk. Yet, if you fall into their company, treat them with the regards which belong to their rank; for so we must people who are vicious in any other respect. We should study what St James, with wonderful elegance and expressiveness, calls meekness of wisdom, in our behaviour towards all men; but more especially towards these men: not so much as being what we owe to them, but to ourselves and our religion; that we may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour, in our carriage towards those who labor to vilify it.
For discourse with them; the caution commonly given, not to attempt answering objections which we have not considered, is certainly just. Nor need any one, in a particular case, be ashamed frankly to acknowledge his ignorance, provided it be not general. And though it were, to talk of what he is not acquainted with, is a dangerous method of endeavoring to conceal it. But a considerate person, however qualified he be to
defend his religion, and answer the objections he hears made against it, may sometimes see cause to decline that office. Sceptical and profane men are extremely apt to bring up this subject at meetings of entertainment, and such as are of the freer sort: innocent ones, I mean, otherwise I should not suppose you would be present at them. Now religion is by far too serious a matter to be the hackney subject upon these occasions. And by preventing its being made so, you will better secure the reverence which is due to it, than by entering into its defence. Every one observes, that men's having examples of vice often before their eyes, familiarizes it to the mind, and has a tendency to take off that just abhorrence of it which the innocent at first felt, even though it should not alter their judgment of vice, or make them really believe it to be less evil or dangerous. In like manner, the hearing religion often disputed about in light familiar conversation, has a tendency to lessen that sacred regard to it, which a good man would endeavor always to keep up, both in himself and others. But this is not all: people are too apt, inconsiderately, to take for granted, that things are really questionable, because they hear them often disputed. This, indeed, is so far from being a consequence, that we know demonstrated truths have been disputed, and even matters of fact, the objects of our senses. But were it a consequence, were the evidence of religion no more than doubtful, then it ought not to be concluded false any more than true, nor denied any more than affirined; for suspense would be the reasonable state of mind with regard to it. And then it ought in all reason, considering its infinite importance, to have nearly the same influence upon practice, as if it were thoroughly believed. For would it not be madness for a man to forsake a safe road, and prefer to it one in which he acknowledges there is an even chance he should lose his life, though there were an even chance likewise of his getting safe through it? Yet there are people absurd enough to take the supposed doubtfulness of religion for
the same thing as a proof of its falsehood, after they have concluded it doubtful from hearing it often called in question. This shows how infinitely unreasonable sceptical men are, with regard to religion; and that they really lay aside their reason upon this subject, as much as the most extravagant enthusiasts. But, further, cavilling and objecting upon any subject, is much easier than clearing up difficulties; and this last part will always be put upon the defenders of religion. Now, a man may be fully convinced of the truth of a matter, and upon the strongest reasons, and yet not be able to answer all the difficulties which may be raised upon it.
Then, again, the general evidence of religion is complex and various. It consists of a long series of things, one preparatory to and confirming another, from the very beginning of the world to the present time. And it is easy to see how impossible it must be, in a cursory conversation, to unite all this into one argument, and represent it as it ought; and, could it be done, how utterly indisposed people would be to attend to it-I say, in a cursory conversation: whereas, unconnected objections are thrown out in a few words, and are easily apprehended, without more attention than is usual in common talk. So that, notwithstanding we have the best cause in the world, and though a man were very capable of defending it, yet I know not why he should be forward to undertake it upon so great a disadvantage, and to so little good effect, as it must be done amidst the gaiety and carelessness of common conversation.
But then it will be necessary to be very particularly upon your guard, that you may not seem, by way of compliance, to join in with any levity of discourse respecting religion. Nor would one let any pretended argument against it pass entirely without notice; nor any gross ribaldry upon it, without expressing our thorough disapprobation. This last may sometimes be done by silence; for silence sometimes is very expressive; as was that of our blessed Saviour before the Sanhedrim,