American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition


Back to the Classical Untiarian Writings page


James Freeman

“Art thou he that should come?”(Matt. 11:3)

Whether the Christian religion is a divine revelation or the invention of man is one of the most important questions which can be offered to our consideration. This question has been agitated during many ages, but notwithstanding all the arguments, which the wise and the learned have been able to produce in favour of the gospel, there are still some persons by whom it is disbelieved. It is not my design in this discourse to undertake the demonstration of its truth, but only to show with what disposition of mind its evidences ought to be examined. Accordingly I will offer several rules, which appear to me so clear and certain that I think every rational man will assent to them, or at least to the greatest part of them, as soon as they are proposed. The example of John, the Baptist, who, with an honest and good heart, asked the question contained in the text, and who received from Jesus the satisfaction which his candour and integrity deserved, confirms these rules and is worthy of the imitation of all who are inquiring into the truth of the Christian religion.

1. The first rule which I offer is that the evidences of the Christian religion ought to be examined with seriousness. We are serious in considering any question which is important and where we think our interest is concerned. If we have a voyage to plan, a house to build, or an estate to purchase, we do not view the subject with a trifling mind or a superficial attention. We make use of foresight and precaution; and we are careful not to commit a mistake or to form a false judgment. In discussing any political question where we suppose the good of our country or our personal freedom and welfare are concerned, we are equally serious. The affair is too momentous to leave our minds in vacancy and ease; and whether our object is to secure the election of a favourite candidate for office, or to promote any public measure, which in our opinion involves the independence and prosperity of our nation, our bosoms are filled with deep concern, and thoughts of levity are totally excluded. Now that religion is more important than any of the business of this world is what no person of reflection will deny. If the Christian religion is true, we are immortal beings, and our happiness or misery in another state depends on our good or bad conduct in the state which now is. It behooves us therefore to examine the subject with care, and with all the solemnity and interest which its magnitude demands.

The great enemy of seriousness is a propensity to ridicule, and too strong a love of wit and humour. These abuses proceed from the perversion of a part of our constitution which our Maker has bestowed on us with a wise and benevolent design. As man is the noblest, so he is also the only risible, animal with which we are acquainted. God has given him tears to quench his grief when his soul is burning with affliction, and smiles to brighten his face when his heart is merry. But it was never intended that his mirth should be a substitute for his reason, or that he should indulge himself in laughter where the exercise of his judgment is required. Wit and humour are the amusements of life, and not the guides to knowledge. In the hands of a master, they may sometimes render a truth more striking or a falsehood more glaring, but they are not arguments, though they are often found to make more impression on the minds of the superficial than the strongest demonstration. If these observations are just, it may be concluded that nothing can be more false than the maxim which Shaftesbury has given, that ridicule is the test of truth. By ridicule we understand a jest, a mockery; or, to give a more favourable definition of the word, it is wit of that species which provokes laughter. According to Shaftesbury then, nothing can be true against which a laugh can be raised. Now experience shows that a man of a sprightly imagination and ready invention can easily make anything appear ridiculous; and if we attend to the nature of wit, or rather to those kinds of it which are denominated humour and ridicule, it will appear that the most important truths are not exempted from his power. The effect of ridicule is produced chiefly, if not altogether, by unexpected associations of terms. When words, which never met before, are suddenly brought together, there is produced a degree of surprise, which amuses the mind. The effect will be the most striking when what is very high is associated with what is very low. The sublime truths of religion therefore can readily be turned into ridicule by connecting them with mean and contemptible language. But a man of correct judgment, who wishes to discover the right path, will always be on his guard against being diverted by this art. He will attend principally, not to the humour of the author whom he reads or the speaker whom he hears, but to his arguments. I am sorry to say that the writers against the Christian religion in modern times have generally followed the maxim of Shaftesbury. Of English deists not more than three or four can be named who have treated the subject with seriousness; and of French infidels there is scarcely one who does not appear to be in jest throughout every part of his work.

2. A second rule is that the evidences of the Christian religion ought to be examined with candour. Previous to inquiry, if we do not think well, we ought at least not to think ill, of the system. We should attend with pure and ingenuous minds to the arguments which may be alleged on both sides of the question and determine to yield our assent where the balance of proofs shall preponderate.

3. Connected with the second rule is a third, which I offer, that we ought to examine these evidences with impartiality. We should be equitable, indifferent, and unbiased in our judgments. I do not say that we ought to wish Christianity to be true—for if we wished it, we should be partial— but I say that we ought to be willing it should be true. It is difficult, I am sensible, to preserve a state of perfect indifference in considering almost any question which may be presented to our understandings. We are too apt to be inclined more to one side than the other by our interests, our education, our habits, our prejudices, our vanity, our hopes, or our fears. Above all, in considering the great question of the truth of Christianity, our vices are opposed to impartiality. If the gospel is a fable, the wicked man has no evil to apprehend in another life; after he lies down in the grave, there will be an end to all his punishment. This consideration undoubtedly has an influence on the minds of some infidels and prevents them from examining the subject with fairness and uprightness. I do not say to a man of this character that he ought to believe the Christian religion, but I assert that he ought to inquire whether it is or is not entitled to his belief. If it is in fact a divine revelation, his ignorance of it may be pronounced willful, and consequently is no excuse for his sins. If a traveler is warned that there is in the path before him a lion which is seeking to devour him, everyone will condemn his folly if he walks toward him blindfolded; he ought at least to remove the bandage from his eyes and see for himself whether or not a false alarm has been given. In like manner every sinner ought to see for himself whether or not the Christian religion, which threatens the wicked with destruction, is true, for if it should prove to be the word of God, nothing can save him from ruin, except repentance and reformation.

4. A fourth rule is that, in examining the evidences of the Christian religion, we ought to consider it as it is in itself, without any of the false appendages which have been made to it by the folly and superstition of its misjudging professors. Many objections, which have been deemed formidable, apply not to the gospel itself, but to its corruptions. Christianity may be true, though the doctrines of purgatory and transubstantiation are not true, though it is not true that they, who differ in opinion from the majority, ought to be burned as heretics, and though it is not true that the power of the clergy ought to be raised, as it was in the dark ages of the church, to such an enormous height as to endanger the liberties of the people and the safety of empires. I instance in corruptions which are foreign to our sentiments, but are there not among ourselves doctrines which are no parts of divine revelation and which prejudice against it enlightened understandings? An intelligent inquirer, before he rejects it, ought carefully to examine whether the fact is not so, and whether there may not be sufficient reason to embrace the Christian religion, though he does not admit the absurd opinions which have been maintained by its erroneous advocates.

5. A fifth rule, connected with the foregoing, is that, in examining the evidences of Christianity, we ought to view it as it exists in the documents in which it was originally delivered. I mean not that every man is under obligations to study the Greek and Hebrew languages. In the present improved state of knowledge, this study is unnecessary, because he can easily procure books which will enable him to ascertain the genuine reading of the ancient text, as well as its true interpretation. The translations, which were made of the Scriptures two centuries ago, abound with errors, for Christians at that time were too full of prejudices and were too much controlled by kingly and clerical authority to be able to give a correct version; and yet, though these circumstances ought to be known by every man who has any pretensions to learning, infidels have sometimes not been ashamed to deduce from such erroneous translations objections against the truth of divine revelation.

6. A sixth rule is that, in examining the evidences of the Christian religion, we ought not to reject it because futile arguments have sometimes been alleged in its favour by weak writers. As all sorts of persons have undertaken to defend the truth of the gospel, it is not to be wondered at that some of its professed advocates should have injured the cause which they intended to benefit. But a system may be true, and may have a hundred strong arguments to support it, though injudicious authors may vainly add ten or a dozen feeble proofs, as an edifice may stand firm on its foundation of stone, though the wooden pilasters on its walls contribute nothing to its strength. When infidels triumphantly urge against Christians, “Such a proof is worth nothing,” provided it is really weak, they should reply, “True, it is worth nothing, but there are, nevertheless, arguments which are as hard as adamant, and which you cannot resist.”

7. Finally, another rule is that we ought not to satisfy ourselves with a superficial examination of the evidences of Christianity, because the arguments which are supposed to establish its truth are many in number and complicated in their nature. The leading proofs, which Christians allege in favour of their religion, may be summed up in a few words as follow: 1) Prophecy; 2) Miracles; 3) The internal evidence, or the purity of its doctrines and the excellence of its precepts; 4) The unexampled perfection of the character of Jesus; 5) The testimony of the Apostles and other primitive witnesses; 6) A chain of tradition, formed by the writings of a succession of authors from the first to the present century, and which establishes the authenticity and credibility of the books of the New Testament. These several arguments consist of a variety of parts, which afford each other support. To the evidences of the New Testament must be added the proofs of the Old Testament, because the two books are so intimately connected that they must stand or fall together; for the Christian religion is a system which professes to begin at the creation and to be continued down to the restitution of all things. A knowledge of so many particulars cannot be obtained without careful inquiry and diligent investigation. As the evidences of Christianity are thus complicated in their nature, so the objections which are alleged against it are also multifarious, for there is scarcely any part of it which has not been attacked by infidels. A man who doubts of its truth has therefore much to do, but he cannot be said to possess a pure and upright mind unless he gives to every question relating to it the attention which is due to its importance.

To these observations it may be objected that if they are just, Christianity must be a system which is not designed for the world in general, because the majority of mankind, and in particular the common people, have neither leisure nor capacity for such minute attention. I answer: It is not required of them. Experience manifests that the greatest part of men are intended, not for speculation, but action. If the Christian religion is true, its practical effects, to the man who believes it, must be the same, whether he is able to demonstrate its truth or not, as the mathematical tables, by which the navigator finds his way across the ocean, are equally safe guides whether he does or does not understand their theory. He is a good Christian who practises the duties which the gospel commands, who educates his children in the principles of piety, temperance, and honesty, who prays to God in his heart, and on the seventh day joins the public worship of the church, and during the rest of the week performs his part as a man, a citizen, a husband, and a father; he is a good Christian, though he never reads any book except the Bible, and never heard of a deist or an atheist. But if by any cause he is led to speculate and doubt, he ought not to stop. A little learning will intoxicate his brain; to restore the sobriety of his mind, he must drink copious draughts from the fountain of theological science. If he reads the works of deistical writers, he must also read the best answers, which have been made to them; if he studies Hume, and Gibbon, and Paine, he must also study Campbell, and Watson, and Priestley.

In concluding the subject, I know not whether I ought to give another rule that to our diligence, seriousness, candour, and impartiality, we should add prayer to God. I hesitate, I say, whether to offer this rule or not, because the infidel may be unwilling to admit its propriety, as he must the justice of all the rest. But if he will not pray, he must at least wish that the divine Being, who formed the human soul and who is acquainted with all its motions, would enlighten his understanding and guide it into the path of truth. If he has an honest and good heart, he must ardently desire to know whether the gospel is a fiction or the genuine word of God. You, my brethren, who already believe the Christian religion, rejoice that you are perplexed with none of these doubts. You have a firm persuasion that your heavenly Father hears your prayers, and that, as he bestows on you all necessary good things, so in particular he gives to you his holy spirit when you ask for it with sincerity, humility, and devotion.

3rd Sunday in Advent.



©2005 American Unitarian Conference