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Gospel dispensation, which is pre-eminently distinguished from the Mosaic economy by its simplicity and spirituality, to place forms of outward order among those things which are essential to the very existence of the Church. We know from scripture, that the visible form of the Church has been repeatedly altered, without affecting her essence.
Secondly-Against this doctrine there is another ground of presumption; because it represents the rite of ordination as of superior importance to the whole system of divine truth and ordinances, which it is the duty of Christian ministers to dispense. According to this doctrine, Presbyters are fully authorized to preach that Gospel which is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth ; to admit members into the Church by baptism; to administer the Lord's supper; and, in short, to engage in all those ministrations which are necessary to edify the body of Christ : but to the regular introduction of a minister into office, by the imposition of hands, they are not competent. Is not this, in other words, maintaining, that the Gospel is inferior to its ministers; that the sacraments are less solemn and elevated ordinances than a rite, which all Protestants allow not to be a sacrament; that the dispensation of God's truth is a less dignified function, than selecting and setting apart a servant of the truth; that the means are more important than the end? If so, then every man of sound mind will pronounce, that, against such a doctrine, there is, antecedent to all inquiry, a reasonable and strong presumption.
Thirdly—If it be admitted, that there are no true ministers but those who are episcopally ordained ; and that none are in communion with Christ, excepting those who receive the ordinances of his Church from the hands of ministers thus ordained ; then Christian character, and all the marks by which we are to judge of it, will be placed on new ground; ground of which the scriptures say nothing; and which it is impossible for one Christian in a thousand to investigate. When the word of God describes a real Christian, it is in such language as this—He is born of the Spirit ; he is a new creature; old things are passed away ; behold, all things are become new. He believes in Christ and repents of all sin. He crucifies the flesh with the affections and lusts : he delights in the law of the Lord after the inward man:-he strives
against sin: he is meek, humble, full of mercy and good fruits : he loves his brethren whom he hath seen, as well as God whom he hath no seen: he is zealous of good works : and makes it his constant study to imbibe the Spirit, and to imitate the example of the Redeemer. These are the evidences of Christian character which fill the New Testament, and which meet us wherever the subject is discussed. According to this representation, the only essential prerequisite to holding communion with Christ, is being united to him by a living faith; that faith which purifies the heart, and is productive of good works. But if the extravagant doctrine which we oppose be admitted; then no man, however abundantly he may possess all these characteristics, can be in communion with Christ, unless he is also in communion with the Episcopal Church. That is, his claim to the Christian character cannot be established by exhibiting a holy temper and life; but depends on his being in the line of a certain ecclesiastical descent. In other words, the inquiry whether he is in covenant with Christ, is not to be-answered by evidences of personal sanctification; but resolves itself into a question of clerical genealogy, which few Christians in the world are capable of examining, and which no mortal can certainly establish. There is no possibility of avoiding this conclusion on the principle assumed. And I appeal to you, my brethren, wbether a principle which involves such consequences, has not strong presumption against it.
Fourthly-If the doctrine in question be admitted, then we virtually pronounce nine-tenths of the whole Protestant world to be in a state of excommunication from Christ. I know it has been often said, by zealous writers on this subject, that the great body of the Protestant Churches are Episcopal; and that those who adopt the Presbyterian government make but a very small portion of the whole number. But I need not tell those who are acquainted with the history of the Church since the reformation, and with the present state of the Christian world, that this representation is wholly incorrect. The very reverse is true; as I shall more fully show in a subsequent letter. Are we then prepared to adopt a principle which cuts off so large a portion of the Protestant world from the visible Church, and represents it as in a state in some respects worse than that of the heathen? It is to be presumed that every considerate man will require the most pointed evidence of
divine warrant, before he admits a principle so tremendous in its consequences.
It is not asserted that these considerations prove the extravagant episcopal doctrine from which they flow to be false. A doctrine may be unpalatable, and yet true. Whatever is plainly revealed in scripture, we are to receive without any regard to consequences. But when a principle is repugnant to reason, contradicts the analogy of faith, and involves consequences deeply wounding to the bosom of charity, we may safely pronounce that there is a presumption against it, antecedent to all inquiry; and that before we embrace such a principle, the evidence of its divine warrant ought to be more than commonly clear and decisive.
With the great body of Episcopalians in this country, and elsewhere, it is extremely easy to live on the most friendly terms. Though attached to the peculiarities of their own denomination, they extend the language and the spirit of charity to other Churches. We, of course, think them in error, because we are persuaded that Episcopacy, in the form for which they contend, is an innovation. Yet as long as they keep within the bounds of that liberal preference and zeal for their own forms, both of government and worship, which every man ought to cherish for the Church with which he connects himself, we must approve of their sincerity, while we cannot unite with them in opinion. But with those (and and we have reason to be thankful that the number is very small) who make exclusive claims, of a nature nearly allied to the doctrine of Popish infallibility; who declare that their own Church and the Roman Catholic, are the only Churches of Christ among us; who embrace every opportunity of denouncing all other ministers, as presumptuous intruders into the sacred office, their ministrations a nullity, and those who attend on them as aliens from the covenant, of grace; with these it is not so easy to live in that harmonious and affectionate intercourse which is highly desirable among Christians of different denominations. But even toward these, it is your duty to cultivate a spirit of forbearance and charity; and while you are careful to arm yourselves with the means of defence against their attacks, remember that you are bound to make allowance for their prejudices, to forgive their uncharitableness, and to pity their delusion. Among depraved and erring mortals, differences of opinion will ever exist. The
most pious and exemplary Christians cannot always agree, especially on subjects of minor importance connected with religion. Make it your study, then, to be unanimous in affection towards Christians of every dame, however you may be compelled to differ from many of them in opinion. Never forget, however others may act as if they forgot, that all real believers are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. It is my earnest wish that this sentiment may be deeply impressed on my own heart while I write, and on yours while you read. For though, with respect to the subject on which I am about to address you, I am fully persuaded in my own mind; and though I confidently believe that our views of the Christian ministry are not only just, but also highly important in their practical influence; yet I have no doubt that many who differ on subjects of this nature, are followers of the same master, are building on the same foundation, and will finally dwell together in that world of perfect love, where men shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of our Father.
You will, perhaps, ask me, whether those who sincerely hold the high-toned Episcopal notions which have been mentioned, can be reasonably blamed for endeavouring to propagate them ? Nay, whether it is not as much their duty as their right in do so,
while they entertain these convictions ? I answer, such persons are to be viewed in the same light with those who conscientiously believe (and no doubt there are many such) that transubstantiation is a doctrine of scripture; that the Pope is infallible; that images are a great help to devotion ; and that there is no salvation out of the pale of the Church of Rome. Persons who hold these opinions are not to be blamed for wishing to disseminate doctrines which they regard as true and important; but they are to be both blamed and pitied for believing them, when the means of gaining more correct views are within their reach; for setting up a standard of duty and of Christian character which the Saviour never knew; and teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. Paul, when he was persecuting the Church of Christ and wasting it, verily thought within himself that he was doing God service; yet we have the best authority for saying that this miserable mistake did not render him blameless in the sight of heaven.
The truth is, every sect of Christians must be considered as having a right to maintain and propagate those opinions, which they sincerely believe to be true; and others have an equal right, and are equally bound, when they see errors propagated, to examine, and, with a suitable spirit, to expose and refute them. Nor are discussions of this kind by any means to be regarded as useless. When conducted with the meekness and benevolence of the Gospel, they are productive of various substantial benefits. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.
Had any of the numerous works which have been published on the subject of these letters been in general circulation among you, or had it been easy to put them in circulation, I should have thought it unnecessary to ask your attention to the following sheets. But as most of those works are too voluminous to be generally read; as several of the best of them are in a language not generally understood ; as many of them contain much matter inapplicable to the state of our country; and as others, being intended to answer particular purposes, are too confined in their views, I have thought myself justifiable in attempting to lay the subject before you in a form somewhat different from that of any work with which I am acquainted. And in doing this, I am not without the hope, that you will be disposed to receive with some partiality, and to peruse with a kind interest, an address from one who has laboured sincerely, though with many infirmities, for many years, to promote your spiritual interest, and who has no greater pleusure than to see you walking in the truth.
To treat the question considered in the following pages, in all its extent, and even to present the principal arguments with a fulness desirable to some readers, would be to fill several volumes. In contracting the discussion, therefore, within the limits of this little manual, I have laid myself under the necessity of being every where extremely brief, and of totally excluding many topics, both of argument and illustration, which might be profitably introduced. But, amidst this unavoidable brevity, I hope you will do me the justice to believe, that no assertion will be made but what I conscientiously consider as susceptible of the most abundant proof; that no arguments will be stated, but those which I believe to have stood immovably solid, after every attempt to answer them; that no authorities will be produced, but those which are generally admitted to be of the most respectable character; and, in a word,