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(6) ed. I have often found your conversation profitable, and sl«>uld wish to avail myself of this and every other opportunity for improving by it.
Gai. Suitable conversation on divine subjects is commonly of mutual advantage; and I must say there is something, I know not what, in the countenance of an inquisitive serious friend, which, as iron sharpeneth iron, whets our powers, and draws forth observations where, otherwise, they had never existed. I think I have been as much indebted to you for asking pertinent questions, as you have been to me for answering them.
Crisp. I have been lately employed in reading the works of some of our first Reformers : and on comparing their times with the present, I have observed that a considerable difference has taken place in the state of the public mind. At the dawn of the Reformation, the bulk of mankindwere the devotees of superstition, and stood ready to extirpate all those who dared to avow any religious principles different from theirs. Even the Reformers themselves, though they inveighed against the persecuting spirit of the Papists, yet seem to have been very severe upon one another, and to have exercised too little christian forbearance, and too much of a spirit that savoured of unchristian bitterness towards those whose ideas of reformation did not exactly coincide with their own. A great deal of their language, and some parts of their conduct, would in the present day be thought very censurable.
How do you account for this change?
Gai. Were I to answer that the rights of conscience have of late years been more clearly understood, and that the sacred duty of benevolence, irrespective of the principles which men imbibe, has been more fres
quently enforced, I should so far speak the truth. And so far we have reason to congratulate the present age upon its improvement.
Crisp. Do you suppose there are other causes to which such a change may be attributed ?
Gai. I do. Scepticism, and a general indifference to religion appear to me to have succeeded the blind zeal and superstition of former ages. It has been observed, I think by Dr. Goodwin, on that remarkable phrase of the apostle Paul, Ye walked according to the course of this world, First, that there is a course which is general, and common to all ages and places, and which includes the gratifying of the lust of the hesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, the laying up treasures on earth instead of heaven, &c. Secondly, that there is a course which is more particular, and which is incessantly varying according to times, places, and circumstances. Like the tide, it is eyer rolling, but in different directions. In one age or country it is this, in another that, and in a third different from them both. The course of this world in the early ages was a course of idolatry. In this direction it ran until the days of Constantine, at which period the prince of darkness found it impracticable in the civilized parts of the earth, any longer to support the pagan throne. The leaders in the Roman empire resolved to become Christians, and great numbers from various motives followed their example. The tide had then changed its direction : the profession of Christianity was fashionable, was honourable, was the high road to preferment. Satan himself, if I may so speak, could now have no objection to turn Christian. The external profession of religion became splendid and pompoús ; but religion itself was gradually lost, and a system of ignorance, superstition, and persecue tion was introduced in its place. For many centories the course of this world, (I speak of the European part of it) was a course of Popery; and so powerful was it that those who ventured to resist it did so at the expense of every thing that was dear to them on earth. In this direction it ran till the Reformation. Since that period there has been another turning of the tide. Several nations have become protestant; and yet the course of this world goes on, and Satan has great influence amongst us. He has no objection to our laughing at superstition, provided that in any, form we remain the slaves of sin. The world of late years has not directed its course so immediately towards superstition, as towards a criminal carelessness and infidelity. Formerly the minds of men were so bent on uniformity in religion as to require it in civil society. Now they tend to the other extreme; and are for admitting any kind of sentiments even into religious society. In short, the propensity of the world in this day is, to consider all religious principles whatever, and all forms of worship, even those which are of divine institution, as of little or no importance. It is from this cause, I am afraid, Crispus, and not merely from a better understanding of the rights of conscience, that a great part of the lenity of the present age arises.
Crisp. Be it so : yet the effect is friendly to mankind. If mutual forbearance amongst men arose from a good motive, it would indeed be better for those who exercise it; but let it arise from what motive it may, it is certainly advantageous to society.
Gai. Very true : but we should endeavour to have laudable behaviour, if possible, arise from the purest motives, that it may be approved of God as well as ads vantageous to men.
Crisp. But do you think we are to expect as much as this from the apostate race of Adam? In the apostle John's time the whole world was represented as lying in wickedness; and, in fact, it has been so ever since. Formerly its wickedness operated in a way of intemperance : now it works in a way of indifference. Of the two does not the last seem to be the least in. jurious ?
Gai. It is indeed the least injurious to our property, our liberty, and our lives; but with regard to our spiritual interests it may be the reverse. Fashion, be it what it may, will always, in some degree at least, diffuse its influence through the minds of men, even of those who are truly religious. The temperance of past ages gave to the temper of pious people, as well as others, a tinge of unchristian severity; and the indifference of the present time has I fear operat. ed with equal power, though in a different manner. We ought to be thankful for our mercies; but at the same time we should take heed lest we be carried away by the course of this world.
Crisp. What evidence have we that religious people are influenced by a spirit of indifference?
Gai. The crying up of one part of religion at the expense of another.
You may often hear of practical religion as being every thing; and of speculative opinions, (which is the fashionable name for doctrinal sentiments,) as matters of very little consequence. Because they are not cognizable by the civil magis. trate, they treat them as if they were of no account; and by opposing them to practical religion, the unwary are led to conclude that the one has no dependence on the other. The effect of this has been, that others, from an attachment to doctrinal principles, have run to a contrary extreme. They write and
preach in favour of doctrines, and what are called the privileges of the gospel, to the neglect of subjects which immediately relate to practice. In other citcles you may hear experience or experimental religion extolled above all things, even at the expense of christian practice and of sound doctrine. But really the religion of Jesus ought not thus to be mangled and torn to pieces. Take away the doctrines of the gospel, and you take away the food of Christians. Insist on them alone, and you transform us into religious epicures. And you may as well talk of the pleasure you experience in eating when you are actually deprived of sustenance, or of the exquisite enjoyments of a state of total inactivity, as boast of experimental religion unconnected with doctrinal and prac. tical godliness. The conduct of a man who walks with God appears to me to resemble that of the industrious husbandman who eats that he may be strengthened to labour ; and who by labour is prepare ed to enjoy his food.
Crisp. Well, you have opened a field for discussion. The next time we meet we may inquire further into these subjects. Gaius, Farewell.
'RISPUS. In our last conversation, Gaius, you made some remarks on the indifference of the present age, with regard to religious . principles, which struck me forcibly ; I should be glad to know what