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I hasten now, SECONDLY, to state those circumstances which contribute to countervail this disadvantage, and to encourage the pursuit of religious knowledge, and the study of the holy scriptures.
These are principally two: the possession of religious liberty,—and the increased attention of the middle classes of society to religious subjects.
FIRST, The state of religious liberty in the united empire is far from being perfect, but it is in a course of growing, and accelerated improvement. It is not long since the Act of Toleration was revised, and considerably extended by the wisdom and liberality of the legislature. Nevertheless, in some important articles it was left very incomplete. A cruel statute which, if it had been put in force, would have banished Locke from his country, would have deprived Clarke of his ecclesiastical preferment, and would have consigned Newton to a dungeon, was left unrepealed. But such is the rapid progress of truth and freedom, which glance like lightning through
the moral hemisphere, that this barbarous statute is now repealed. And it is worthy of observation, as a fact which illustrates in a very high degree the increasing liberality of the times, that the very same measure which has lately been carried without any opposition, was introduced, twenty years before, by the most enlightened statesman of the age; and though it was supported with all the commanding energy of truth, of argument, and of eloquence, it was overruled and lost, in consequence of the contracted views of those who then possessed the powers of government.
This spirit of toleration, I would rather say, of religious liberty, is the glory of the present age, and is the characteristic excellence of the illustrious House of Brunswick. In the last century, the learned and honest Whiston was expelled from his professorship, and the equally learned and pious Emlyn was committed to a gaol, for venturing publicly to assert the unrivalled supremacy, and the sole worship of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. At present,
the advocates of the same obnoxious doctrine teach it in the most open and explicit manner, without reserve, and without fear, being placed under the protection of the law. This is indeed a privilege peculiar to the present times, which cannot be too highly prized, and for which we cannot be sufficiently thankful. And the consequence is, that numbers who would not otherwise have heard the doctrine, are now the disciples and professors of the primitive and apostolic faith.
SECONDLY, It is a circumstance, most highly favourable to theological inquiry, and to the progress of uncorrupted Christianity in the present age, that although religious discussion, and the public profession of unpopular truth, have wholly ceased to be patronized by fashion, and, in a great measure, by learning and philosophy; they have been taken up with proportionate zeal, and upon the best principles, by great numbers of that truly respectable class of society, which is equally removed from the tyranny of fashion, the
pride of literature, and the depression of poverty. This middle rank in the social order, equally remote from its opposite and hazardous extremes, this truly independent class of mankind, who have a spirit to think as they please, and to speak as they think; to judge for themselves in the great concerns of religion, and to profess in public the sincere convictions of their heart, without fear of being injured in their circumstances, or shunned by their acquaintance; turning their back with retorted scorn upon those who turn their back upon them for resolutely following the dictates of conscience: these are the persons who have of late years directed their attention to religious inquiry, who are willing to pursue evidence whithersoever it leads; who have discovered and discarded many of the most prominent errors of Christian doctrine; who feel the benefit of religious knowledge; who rejoice in it as their chief treasure; who are still thirsting after greater attainments; and who are gratefully attentive to those who are willing to communicate, as far as lies in their power, Christian instruction.
Though the majority of this most virtuous and most respectable class of mankind are, as it would be natural to expect, firmly attached to old prejudices, and to popular opinions, yet, never since the reformation, has there been so great a number disposed to think, to inquire, to judge, and to act agreeably to their convictions, as there is at present. And, in this important respect, the present age far excels that which preceded it, and is far more favourable to the progress of truth.
What then, under these circumstances, is the duty of those who profess to believe in the Christian religion?
If, indeed, the Christian doctrine is a fable which will not bear examination; if its threatenings are a delusion, and its promises are a dream; let us at once renounce it: or, if there be no expectation of a future life, let us profess Christianity in that form which will be best adapted to advance our secular interest. Why should we expose ourselves to reproach and inconvenience by opposition to established opinions, when we