Page images
PDF
EPUB

not change their opinions in a small space of time ;" some think he might have found an example more to his purpose, than that of the body of Dissenters having deserted their former principles, in the well-known change of the major part of the Chnrch of England; who, about the time of Archbishop Laud, went off from Calvinism to Arminianism. Had this example been adduced, his antagonist might have found some difficulty in maintaining his ground against him; as it is an undoubted fact, and a fact which he himself acknowledges, with several others of the kind, in the Third of his Familiar Letters to the Inhabitants of Birmingham.

The supposition, however, of the Dissenters being generally gone, or going off, to Socinianism, though far from just, has not been without its apparent grounds.

parent grounds. The consequence which Socinians have assumed, in papers and pamphlets which have been circulated about the country, has afforded room for such a supposition. It has not been very uncommon for them to speak of themselves, as The DissenTERS, THE MODERN DISSENTERS, &c. It was said, in a paper that was published more than once,

The ancient, like the Modern Dissenters, worshipped one God; they bnew nothing of the Nicene or Athanasian creeds." The celebrated authoress of The Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts, is not clear in this matter. That otherwise admirable performance is tinged with pride of party consequence. “We thank you, gentlemen," she says, for the compliment paid to DISSENTERS, when you suppose, that the moment they are eligible to places of power and profit, all such places will ot once be filled with them. We had not the presumption to imagine, that, inconsiderable as we are in numbers, compared to the Established Church ; inferior, too, in fortune and influence ; labouring, as we do, under the frowns of the court and THE

we should make our way so readily into to the recesses of royal favour.” Even the Monthly Reviewers, though they have borne testimony against mingling doctrinal disputes with those of the repeal of the Test laws;* yet, have sometimes spoken of Dissenters and Secin

OF THE ORTHODOX ;

ANATHEMA

* Monthly Review Enlarged, Vol. I. p. 233.

ians, as if they were terms of the same meaning and extent. “It appears to us as absurd,” they say, “ to charge the religious principles of the DISSENTERS with republicanism, as it would be to advance the same accusation against the Newtonian philosophy. The doctrine of gravitation may as well be deemed dangerous to the state, as SOCINIANISM."*

Is it unnatural, from such representations as these, for those who know but little of us, to consider the Socinians as constituting the main body of the Dissenters; and the Calvinists as only a few stragglers, who follow these leading men at a distance in all their measures ; but whose numbers and consequence are so small, that even the mention of their names among Protestant Dissenters, may very well be omitted ?

This, however, as it only affects our reputation, or, at most, can only impede the repeal of the Test laws, by strengthening a prejudice, too strong already, against the whole body of Dissenters, might be overlooked. But this is not all : it is pretty evident, that the union among us, in civil matters, has been improved for the purpose of disseminating religious principles. At one of the most public meetings for the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts, as the author was credibly informed, Socinian peculiarities were advanced, which passed unnoticed, because those of contrary principles did not choose to interrupt the harmony of the meeting, by turning the attention of gentlemen from the immediate object for which they were assembled. What end could Dr. Priestley have, in introducing so much about the Test Act, in his controversy with Mr. Burn, on the person of Christ, except it were to gild the pill, and make it go down the easier with Calvinistic Dissenters ?

The writer of these Letters does not blame the Dissenters of his own persuasion for uniting with the Socinians. In civil matters, he thinks it lawful to unite with men, be their religious principles what they may: but he, and many others, would be very sorry, if a union of this kind should prove an occasion of abating our zeal for those religious principles which we consider as being of the very essence of the gospel.

* Review for June, 1790, p. 247,

ans :

The reason why the term Socinians is preferred, in the following Letter, to that of Unitarians, is not for the mean purpose of reproach ; but because the latter name is not a fair one. The term, as constantly explained by themselves, signifies those professors of Christianity who worship but one God: but this is not that wherein they can be allowed to be distingushed from others For what professors of Christianity are there, who profess to worship a plurality of Gods ? Trinitarians profess also to be Unitari

They, as well as their opponents, believe there is but one God. To give Socinians this name, therefore, exclusively, would be granting them the very point which they seem so desirous to take for granted ; that is to say, the point in debate.

Names, it may be said, signify little ; and this signifies no more on one side, than the term orthodox does on the other. The writer owns, that, when he first conceived the idea of publishing these Letters, he thought so; and intended, all along, to use the term Unitarians. What made him alter his mind was, his observing, that the principal writers in that scheme bave frequently availed themselves of the above name, and appear to wish to have it thought, by their readers, that the point in dispute between them and the Trinitarian is, Whether there be three Gods, or only one ?

If he had thought the use of the term Unitarians consistent with justice to his own argument, he would have preferred it to that of Socinians; and would also have been glad of a term to express

the system which he has defended, instead of calling it after the name of Calvin ; as he is aware, that calling ourselves after the names of men, (though it be merely to avoid circumlocution,) is liable to be understood as giving them an authority which is inconsistent with a conformity to our Lord's command, Call no man master upon earth ; for one is your master, even Christ.

He may add, that the substance of the following Letters was written before the riots at Birmingham, His regard to justice and humanity made him feel much, on that occasion, for Dr. Priestley, and others who suffered with him ; but his regard to what he esteems important truth made him feel more. which a doctrine receives from those who would support it by the unballowed hands of plunder and persecution, is far greater in the

l'ol. II.

The injury

1

esteem of many, than it can receive from the efforts of its avowed adversaries. For his own part, he has generally supposed, that both the contrivers and executors of that iniquitous business, call themselves what they will, were men of no principle. If, however, those of the high-church party, who instead of disavowing the spirit and conduct of the misguided populace, have manifestly exulted in it, must be reckoned among the Trinitarians; he has only to say, they are such Trinitarians as he utterly disapproves ; and concerning whom he cannot so well express his sentiments and feelings, as in the words of the patriarch: Instruments of cruelty are in their habitation. O my soul, come not thou into their secret ; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they digged down a wall. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath for it was cruel.

Detestable, however, as were the riots at Birmingham; no one can plead, that they render the religious principles of Dr. Priestley less erroneous, or less pernicious; or an opposition to them, upon the fair ground of argument, less necessary. On the contrary, the mere circumstance of his being a persecuted man, will have its influence on some people, and incline them not only to feel for the man, the gentleman, and the philosopher; (all which is right; but to think favourably of his religious opinions. On this consideration, if the following Letters would, previous to that event, have been in any degree proper and seasonable ; they are not, by 'any thing that has since occurred, become improper, or unseasonable.

Since the first edition, the author has attempted, in some places, to strengthen his argument, and to remove such objections as have, hitherto occurred. The principal additions will be found in Letters IV. and XV. The note, towards the latter end of the former, was occasioned by a report, that Dr. Priestley complained of being misrepresented by the quotation in the first page of the Preface. This Note contains a vindication, not only of the fairness of the quotation from Dr. Priestley, but of another, on the same purpose, from Mr. Belsham : and an answer to what is advanced, on its behalf, in the Monthly Review.

1802.

« PreviousContinue »