Imatges de pÓgina
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no esteem-I shall proceed, though perhaps with too little method, to remark on the notorious effects of the decay of this religious principle, as it corrupts our mode of education, infests domestic conduct, spreads the contagion downwards among servants and inferiors, and influences our general manners, habits, and conversation.

But what it is here proposed principally to insist on is, that this defect of religious principle is almost equally fatal, as to all the ends and purposes of genuine piety, whether it appear in the open contempt and defiance of all sacred institutions, or under the more decent veil of external observances, unsupported by such a conduct as is analogous to the christian profession.

I shall proceed with a few remarks on a third class of fashionable characters, who profess to acknowledge christianity as a perfect system of morals, while they deny its divine authority: and conclude with some slight animadversions on the opinion which these modest christians maintain, that morality is the whole of religion.

It must be confessed, however, that manners and principles act reciprocally on each other; and are, by turns, cause, and effect. For instance--the increased relaxation of morals produces the encreased neglect of infusing religious principles in the education of youth: which effect becomes in its turn, a cause; and in due time, when that cause conies to operate, helps on the decline of manners.

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CHAP. I.

Decline of Christianity shewn, by a Comparative

View of the Religion of the Great in preceding

Ages.

If the general position of this little tract be allowed, namely, that religion is at present in no very fourishing state among those whose example, from the high ground on which they stand, guides and governs the rest of mankind, it will not be denied by those who are ever so superficially acquainted with the history of our country, that this has not always been the case.

Those who make a fair comparison must allow, that however the present age may be improved in other important and valuable advantages, yet that there is but little appearance remaining among the great and the powerful of that " right“eousness which exalteth a nation;"_They must confess that there has been a moral revolution in the national manners and principles, very little analogous to t'iat great political one which we hear so much and so justly extolled. That our public virtue bears little proportion to our public blessings; and that our religion has decreased in a pretty exact proportion to our having secured the means of enjoying it.

That the antipodes to wrong are bardly ever right, was very strikingly illustrated about the middle of the last century, when the fiery and indiscreet zeal of one party was made a pretext for the profligate impiety of the other; who, to the bad principle which dictated a depraved conduct, added the bad taste of being proud of it:—when even the least abandoned were absurdly apprehensive that an appearance of deceney might subject them to the charge of fanaticism, a charge in whiclı tliey took care to involve real piety as well as enthusiastic pretence, till it became the general fashion to avoid not sin but hypocrisy, to dread no imputation but that of seriousness, and to be more afraid of the virtues which procure a good reputation than of every vice wbich ever earned a bad one: Party was no longer confined to political distinctions, but became a part of morals, and was carried into religion. The more profligate of the court party began to connect the idea of devotion with that of republicanism; and to prove their aversion to the one, thought they could never cast too much ridicule upon the other. The public taste became debauched, and to be licentious in principle, was thouglit by many to be the best way of making their court to the restored Monarch, and of proving their abhorrence of the hypocritical side. And Poems by å person of honour, the phrase of the day to designate a fashionable author, were often scandalous offences against modesty and virtue.

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It was not till piety was thus unfortunately brought into disrepute, that persons of condition thought it made their sincerity, their abilities, or their good breeding questionable, to appear openly on the side of religion. A strict attachment to piety did not subtract from a great reputation. Men were not thought the worse lawyers, generals, ministers, legislators, or historians, for believing, and even de fending, the religion of their country. The gallant Sir Pbilip Sidney, the rash but heroic Essex, the politic and sagacious Burleigh, the all-accomplished Falkland*, not only publicly owned their belief in

* Lord Falkland assisted the great Chi gworth in his incomparabe work, The Religion of a Protestant.

christianity, christianity, but even wrote some things of a religious nature *. These instances, and many other which might be adduced, are not, it will be allowed, selected from among contemplative recluses, grave divines, or authors by profession; but from the busy, the active, and the illustrious; from public cha racters, from men of strong passions, beset with great temptations ; distinguished actors on the stage of life; and whose respective claims to the title of fine gentlemen, brave soldiers, or able statesmen, have never been called into question.

What would the Hales, and the Clarendons, and the Somerses + have said, had they been told that the time was at no great distance when that sacred book, for which they thought it no derogation from their wisdom or their dignity to entertain the profoundest reverence; the book which they made the rule of their faith, the object of their most serious study, and the foundation of their eternal hope ; that this book would one day be of little more use to men in high public stations, than to be the instrument of an oath; and that the sublimest rites of the christian religion would soon be considered as little more than a necessary qualification for a place, or the legal preliminary to an office.

This indeed is the boasted period of free enquiry and liberty of thinking: but it is the peculiar character of the present age, that its mischiefs often assume the most alluring forms; and that the most alarming evils not only look so like goodness as to be often mistaken for it, but are sometimes mixed up with so much real good, as often to disguise, though never to counteract, their malignity. Under the beautiful mask of an enlightened philosophy, all religious restraints are set at nought ; and some of the deadliest wounds have been aimed at christianity, in works written in avowed vindication of the most ami. able of all the christian principles*. Even the prevalence of a liberal and warm philanthropy is secretly sappinig the foundation of christian morals, because many of its champions allow themselves to live in the open violation of the severer duties of justice and sobriety, while they are contending for the gentler ones of charity and beneficence.

* See that equally elegant and authentic work, The Anecdotes of Royal and Noble Authors.

+ This consummate statesman was not only remarkable for a strict at. tendance on the public duties of religion, but for maintaining them with equal exactness in his family, át a period too when religion was most dis. countenanced.

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The strong and generous bias in favour of universal toleration, noble as the principal itself is, has engendered a dangerous notion that all error is innocent. Whether it be owing to this, or to whatever other cause, it is certain that the discriminating features of the christian religion are every day growing into less repute; and it is become the fashion, even among the better sort, to evade, to lower, or to generalize, its most distinguishing peculiarities.

There is so little of the Author of christianity left in his own religion, that an apprehensive believer is ready to exclaim, with the woman at the sepulchre,

* See particularly l'oltaire sur la Tolerance. This is a common artifice of that insidious au thor. In this instance he has made use of the popularity he obtained in the fanatical tragedy at Thoulouse (the murder of Calas) to discredit, though in the most guarded manner, christianity itself; de. grading martyrdoms, denying the truth of the Pagan persecutions, &c. &c. And by mixing some truths with many falsehoods, by assuming an amta able candour, and professing to serve the interests of goodness, he treacherously contrives to leave on the mind of the unguarded seader impressions the most unfavourable to christianity.

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