« PreviousContinue »
fidered if not how many, at least who are the believers,
With respect to the ministers, or professed teachers of christianity, I am well aware, it will be said, that, besides the prejudices of education in favour of their religion, in common with the bulk of the people, they are gainers by the system, and therefore that they must be set aside as of no weight in the cafe. I am very ready to own that, in these circumstances, their mere profesion of christianity has no weight, because it is consistent with real infidelity; but allowing them to be men of sense, ftudy, and inquiry, and withal men of fair moral characters, their fincere belief, of christianity certainly has fome weight, especially in cases in which the gains of the profeffion do not place them much above the common level of their fellow citizens.
Study and inquiry cannot but be allowed to be, in some measure, a balance to the prejudices of education, besides that, in numberless cases, this prejudice is much more than balanced by an oppofite one, which is peculiarly incident to studious and learned men, viz. the affectation of being thought wiser than our ancestors, and free from vulgar prejudices. As to the emoluments of the christian ministry, they are not so great as to be fufficient, in other cases, to induce an equal number of men, in similar circumstances, to wish to acD 3
quire quire then by the habitual and constant profession of a falfhood.
Setting aside the great dignitaries in the church of Rome or of England, many clergymen, in the latter of these establishments especially, who have had no great preferment in the church, men of reading and understanding, have written very able defences of christianity.
If it be said, that these men, though but poorly provided for at the time in which they wrote, might have considerable expectations, and that several of them did, in fact, attain to great preferment in the church, in confequence of their defences of christianity, this cannot be said of those disenting minifters who have defended the same cause with equal zeal, and not less ability. What advantage did Foster, Leland, or Lardner gain by the important services which they rendered the christian cause? The two former, if I have been rightly, informed, died poor, and the last, besides almost the whole of a very long life, spent a con. fiderable part of his own independent fortune in the publication of his works.
If the evidence of such men as there must be fet afide, nothing, furely, worth replying to, can be objected to the belief and defence of christianity by such men as Locke, Newton, or Hartley; all men of fober minds, in no other respect the dupes of vulgar prejudice, least of all those of education; all
of them men of striet virtue and integrity, all of them men of tlie first-rate abilities, the two latter of them especially, infinitely superior to any of the advocates for infidelity. These men gave the closest attencion to the subject, and they were masters of all the previous knowledge that is requisite to form a competent judgment in the case, They certainly could have no views of interest in their profession or defences of christianity; and, as men of letters, would probably have gained, rather than have lost any thing, in point of general estimation, by espousing the cause of infidelity. For it can hardly be denied, that the works of fuch men as Mr. Hume and Voltaire, have been much more read and admired in consequence of their being unbelievers, than they would otherwife have been,
It is not easy, for want of a sufficient knowledge of antient and distant countries, to compare the State of the belief of Judaism and of christianity with that of any system of heathenism or Mohammedanism, which are deemed to be false both by believers and unbelievers of christianity; but as far as we are able to make this comparison, all the conclusion that can be drawn from it is certainly in favour of the Jewish and christian religions. It will not be pretended that so much as one philofopher, or man of letters, was a serious believer of any pagan system, notwithstanding their opposition to christianity at its first promulgation. In Mo. hammedan countries there is at present very little reading or study, and if we be not misinformed by some late travellers, those who are addicted to ftudy, or who have any thing of a speculative turn, are generally supposed to be unbelievers. However, nothing written against their religion was ever read or heard of in any Mohammedan country
Upon the whole, I think we may conclude, at leaft fairly presume, that no imposture has ever flood such a test as christianity has already stood, without being exploded; and notwithstanding the spread of infidelity at present, yet, considering among whom it spreads, and who they are that oppose the spread of it, it can hardly be doubted, by an indifferent spectator, but that the belief of christianity, so far from being in any danger of becoming extinct, will maintain its ground, and continue to be the serious belief of the virtuous, the fuber-minded, and the learned of the present and future ages; and this will be an omen of its finally triumphing over all opposition, and of the belief of its coming at length to be universal, and undisputed.
Sincere christians have no more reason to be fhocked at the prevalence of infidelity in the present age, than at the prevalence of evils in general, or of vice in particular. There can be no doubt
but that evils of every kind answer the best of purposes in the system of God's moral government, and that they are a very important part of that most admirable discipline, by which mankind are training up to the knowledge of truth and the practice of virtue. Nor do I think that it requires any great depth of judgment, or knowledge of human nature, to perceive this.
Supposing it to be the intention of any person to form a. proper number of truly great, excellent, and generous minds, he must place them in a world not less abounding with calamity, and even with vice, than this. There could be no dependence either upon the genuineness, or the stability of that virtue which had not been formed, and exercised, in such circumstances.
In like manner, the most rational and the most steady believer in christianity, is the man who has heard and considered all the serious objections that unbelievers can make to it, and who has also been exposed to the ridicule with which it is treated by those who have the reputation of men of sense, and of being free from vulgar prejudices. The man who has passed through this trial, whose faith has not been shaken, but has been more firmly established by the reasonings of unbelievers ; who has not been made ashamed of his profession by the ridicule and contempt to which it has exposed him, but who can be content to be ranked