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NEW SERIES - No. XXVIII.
ART. I. - The Works of ROBERT HALL, A. M. With a
brief Memoir of his Life by Dr. GREGORY, and Observations on his Character as a Preacher, by John FOSTER. Edited by Dr. OLYNTHUS GREGORY. 3 vols. 8vo. New York. 1833.
At the commencement of the present century England exhibited a constellation of extraordinary men in all the departments of public life. It was a critical period, one in which the most important interests of humanity seemed often on the point of being swept away by the roused billows of popular feeling. Such periods have ever been fruitful in great men; men who in quiet times avoid the tumult of public life, satisfied with cultivating their minds in an independent solitude. When the elements of social happiness are attacked, and the foundations of social institutions disturbed, such men come forward, and bend the full strength of their minds to the support of the cause which they hold the true
Among the Pitts, Foxes, and Burkes of those peculiar days, Fame has written the name of Robert Hall, the Baptist preacher. By the power of his reasoning, the elegance of his style, and the fervor of his address, he gained a place among the chiefs in the domain of Politics, Literature, and Religion. The power of his mind was felt in all these departments of human interest. The influence he exerted
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has not yet passed away. His works have been just collected, bis biography is still exciting curiosity, partisans are yet disputing concerning his character and claims. We propose to examine them likewise, not as partisans, but as those who delight in studying every manifestation of human greatness and generosity, all efforts made in sincerity for the glory of God and the good of man.
In the present case, it happens to be out of our power to attempt any thing like a complete survey of the character or life of this remarkable man. We shall confine ourselves to the consideration of a single question relating to a peculiar phenomenon of his public character. The question is, Why is it that all parties in politics and religion find so much both to praise and to censure in Robert Hall's opinions ? Why is it so difficult to determine which creed he espoused? The liberal party find their own sentiments and opinions elo- quently argued and defended in his earlier works, in his
Apology for the Freedom of the Press,” his treatise on “Terms of Communion,” and many other publications. The tories see every thing to admire in his later productions, - in his sermon on "Modern Infidelity,” on the “Sentiments proper to the Present Crisis,” and some other works, dating chiefly from the later years of his life. Did he then change his principles and his party? This he explicitly denies, – he declares at the close of his life that his youthful principles remain unaltered, and he republishes the works which contain them. Did he therefore hold inconsistent principles, or was he misunderstood by the public ? Unless we can find some middle way, we must apparently rest in one of these conclusions.
To get light on this question, let us first consider the character and tendencies of his mind, and then the circumstances which surrounded him, acted on him, and received his influence.
Robert Hall's might be called a great mind, — large in all its capacities, and wide in the extent of its sphere of perception and action. In every such mind it is easy to discern two characters, always opposing, limiting, and balancing each other. It will not narrow itself to the service of a single idea, it will not blind itself to the majesty of nature by gazing on one truth till all others disappear. It will not live in extremes, - it is not fanatical, -it refuses to submit to any narrow rule of belief or of duty, - it is conscious to itself of expanding capacities which no rule can measure, no system bound. This is greatness of mind, — such greatness had Robert Hall. Had the circumstances which surrounded him been more favorable, his mind might have expanded into as perfect and complete humanity as our age has witnessed. This was not granted him; on some sides he was undeveloped; on others limited; yet he was, and will always remain, one of the great men of our day.
By looking a little more in detail at this two-fold action of his mind, we shall be able to discover opposing tendencies, which taken together make an entire balance.
The first of these is toward free and independent action. This supplied the motive for his patient and extensive studies. He longed to know and understand for himself, that he might not be obliged to depend on the judgment of others. From this motive he studied Jonathan Edwards in his ninth year, and Dante in his sixtieth, — from this motive he struggled through life to acquire a correct and profound knowledge in every department of science and philosophy. This longing for independent mental action gave much distress to his Baptist friends, to many of whom unsettered thinking was a sure presage of approaching heresy and spiritual danger. Thus we are told that Mr. Fuller and Dr. Ryland entered in their journals these Memoranda. “May 7th. Heard Mr. Robert Hall, jr. preach. Felt very solemn in hearing some parts. The Lord keep that young man.” 66 June 14th. Taken up with the company of Mr. Robert Hall, jun.; feel much pain for him. The Lord, in his mercy to him and his churches, keep him in the path of truth and righteousness.” “ June 8th. Robert Hall preached wonderfully from Rom. viii. 18. I admire many things in this young man exceedingly, though there are others that make me fear for him.”
The truth was, that, with his enlightened mind, he could hardly utter an opinion, or express a sentiment, which would not shock some bigot of his party, who would think himself justified in calling him to account for it. Traces of his independent spirit are often occurring in his writings. Thus
says: my part I let every man pursue his own plans; how it is that I am doomed to be the perpetual object of advice, admonition, expostulation, &c., I know not. I am sure it does not arise from any proofs I have given of
superior docility.” In the same spirit, he opposed what he thought bigotry and tyranny with the sharpest weapons of satire and contempt.
Another trait which presses itself on our notice is the strength of his resolution. Whatever he determined to do, that he persevered in, in spite of all opposition and difficulty. A most extraordinary energy of purpose appears from first to last, written over the history of his life. It was by means of his strength of character alone that he was enabled to become what he was. For his friends strove earnestly, from first to last, to make him lay aside whatever was original, independent, and peculiarly excellent in his character. Had it not been for his strength of will, they would have succeeded in making him as common-place as themselves. His firmness sometimes partook of the character of pride and dogmatism. But at other times we must respect his strength of resolution, as displaying the highest moral sublimity. He claims our reverence for the firinness with which he maintained the cause of open communion, though conscious of the unpopularity and odium which it brought
So likewise we must respect that power of soul which enabled him to conquer the attacks of bodly pain, and achieve some of his greatest triumphs of thought when suffering the acutest bodily tortures. His whole life, also, is in this point of view sublime, being one continued and mighty effort to reach truth, to develope his powers, and to influence others for good.
But now, looking on the other side of his character we meet with tendencies which form an equipoise to these. We have seen that the love of liberty was a conspicuous attribute of his character. We now find, accompanying and often counteracting this, a love of law, a willing submission to right, a readiness to yield to the dictates of morality. His conscientiousness, which was great in his youth, increased with his years, and often restrained him from expressing the violent feelings which were always excited by any attempt to compel or restrain him. His sense of moral obligation may be learned from the passage in his “Sermon on the Present Crisis,” in which he argues with such power, elevation, and depth of conviction against the system of Utility.
We find also a trait in his character to balance his inflexi