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Jonathan Mayhew

“And he said also to the people, When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is. And when ye see the south-wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to pass. Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky, and of the earth: but how is it, that ye do not discern this time? Yea, and why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?” –Luke 12:54-57.

These are the words of our Lord Jesus Christ; and the occasion of them seems to have been as follows: He had been preaching the gospel in Jerusalem and neighboring cities of the Jews and had, by the purity of his doctrine and the holiness of his life, together with the nature and number of his miracles, convinced many persons that he was the ‘Messiah that was to come,’ and that they were not to ‘look for another’ [Luke 7:18-23]. However the chief of the Scribes and Pharisees rejected him as an imposter, attributing his miraculous works to the power of magic, or his supposed familiarity with evil spirits.

Now it is easy to see what an influence this conduct of the Scribes and Pharisees, in vilifying our blessed Saviour, must unavoidably have had upon the generality of the people. For they were in the highest esteem amongst the Jews, both because they were supposed to have the deepest insight into things of a religious nature, and, at the same time, to be men of extraordinary piety. This favourable opinion concerning them was indeed ill-grounded. But they had the talent of imposing upon the people in great perfection, and in fact managed matters with so much craft and subtlety that they were thought almost the only saints in the world and the great oracles to be consulted upon all occasions. The people placed an implicit faith in their dogmas and decisions. Nothing was thought to bear the genuine stamp of truth unless they had had the coining of it. And their censure of any particular person, or doctrine, was sufficient to make either of them odious to the multitude.

When, therefore, these infallible guides stigmatized our Lord as an ill man, when they reproached him as one who, without any reason or authority, was attempting to discredit certain opinions which they had ‘received to have and to hold from their forefathers’ [Mark 7:2-5], when they accused him of making innovations in the old established religion to the great hazard of the souls of men, I say, when they talked and railed in this pious strain, it gave a general alarm to the people, especially to the superstitious vulgar, and exposed our Lord to their contempt and hatred and insults. They gave themselves no farther trouble to inquire into the grounds of his pretensions to the Messiahship, concluding that he must needs be a deceiver, who was condemned by such a learned and holy body of men as that of the Scribes and Pharisees.

Few of them condescended so far as to come and hear him preach (this being represented to them as dangerous) that so they might know what he had to say for himself; and those that did came rather as spies, that they might find occasion to cavil and to accuse him to the Priests and Pharisees, than with such an unprejudiced and candid disposition as became inquirers after the truth.

But although the generality of the Jews were such abject slaves to the dictates of their spiritual instructors, never caring to hesitate concerning the truth of what they had asserted upon religious subjects, but receiving every thing, how absurd soever, with all the humility of implicit faith, yet it seems that in their temporal and worldly concerns, they were cautious enough. Here they were not fond of taking up satisfied with any man's word, but were forward to think, inquire, and judge for themselves.

This is a short character of the people to whom our Lord speaks in the text. And this being kept in view, his address will appear very natural and seasonable: “And he said also to the people, When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is. And when ye see the south-wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to pass. Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky, and of the earth: but how is it, that ye do not discern this time? Yea, and why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?”

These Words seem to be very plain of themselves, but the sense of them may be expressed more at large in the following paraphrase:

“And after these things, Jesus addressed himself to the Jews, who were generally prejudiced against him through their blind attachment to their spiritual guides, and said, ‘Ye that suffer yourselves to be led blindfold by others with regard to me and my doctrine, and things of a religious concern in general, are nevertheless gracious enough in matters of equal difficulty and much less importance. Ye are apt and skilful enough at distinguishing the signs and tokens of things that are come to pass in the natural world, in which your present interest is concerned.[1] Ye can (for example) by observing the colour of the sky, and the blowing of the wind, form a true judgment concerning the future change of the weather. How comes it to pass, then, ye deluded hypocrites, that amidst all your sagacity in things that relate to the present world, ye are still blind and undiscerning in things of a religious nature? Why do not ye that can presage various changes from the appearance of the earth and heavens discern also the periods and revolutions of things, the various dispensations of providence in the moral world? In particular, how comes it to pass that ye do not distinguish the present season, in which God is erecting a new dispensation to succeed that of Moses? These are signs and tokens enough to convince you that such a revolution is now taking place, if ye would but examine them attentively. Why, then, will ye suffer yourselves to be blinded by the authority of the Priests and Pharisees, when God has given you sufficient abilities to gain the knowledge of the truth? Why will ye not exert your own faculties and judge for yourselves what is true and right in this matter, as ye do in things of a worldly nature?”

Thus I have endeavoured to give a true idea of the original scope and meaning of the words which I have chosen for the subject of my present discourse. I shall now wave every thing in them peculiar to the time and circumstances wherein they were spoken and observe from them several universal truths which concern all time and persons and places alike. As,

I. That there is a natural difference between truth and falsehood, right and wrong.

II. That men are naturally endowed with faculties proper for the discerning of these differences.

III. And lastly, That men are under obligation to exert these faculties and to judge for themselves in things of a religious concern.


I. That there is a natural difference between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. —“Why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?”

By “what is right,” it is probable that our Saviour here more immediately intends, what is true; for his discourse in this place turns upon examining, judging, and inferring one thing from another. But whether by this term we understand, what is true in theory, or what is right in practice, it will come to much the same thing at last, for there is an inseparable connection between them. If certain things are true in speculation, there must be some correspondent fitness of actions resulting therefrom. And, on the other hand, if any thing be allowed fit in a practical sense, that fitness or rightness must be founded in certain truths and relations before subsisting. I shall, therefore, take it for granted, that the text supposes that there is in nature both a True, as distinguished from speculative Error; and a Right, as distinguished from Wrong in Conduct. And the remainder of this discourse will be taken up with these important distinctions.

Indeed the spending of time to prove that there are really such differences as those mentioned may appear to some to be rather childish impertinence, or formal trifling, than a proper employment for reasonable Creatures, it being such a plain and obvious truth. However it is to be remembered that no notion is too absurd to deserve to be refuted, while some are absurd enough to propagate, and others to believe, it, especially if it be such an one as strikes at the root of all religion and every thing wherein the happiness of mankind conflicts.

And such is the notion of an absolute indifference in nature with relation to truth and falsehood, right and wrong. For this being allowed, it follows that we have no invariable rule of life and conduct. No man upon this supposition is under a possibility either of judging or acting amiss, or of the contrary. Each man thinks as justly as another, how contrary soever his sentiments are. And so also each one acts as rightly as any other, let him act how he will. This is to make short work with all questions and debates concerning truth, religion, and the rule of human conduct: it supersedes all inquiries about them by presupposing that they have no existence but in the idea of certain doting men who have employed themselves in inventing arbitrary distinctions.

There seem to have been two species of Skeptics in the World: one of which exploded the whole notion of truth and right, as opposed to falsehood and wrong conduct, and another which seemingly allowed such differences to have an existence in nature, but held it impossible for us to discern them. It is only the first of these opinions that we are concerned with at present; the latter will be considered in our next discourse.

To begin with truth—Notwithstanding what some are pleased to pronounce with their lips concerning the indifference of truth and falsehood, it is hardly possible but that their hearts should be at variance with their mouths, and give them the lie, even while they are denying there is any such thing as falsehood. For if there be any thing existing (which surely no body was ever so absurd as to deny) there must necessarily be such a thing as truth: truth, as abstracted from mind or intelligence, being nothing distinct from the real nature and properties of things existing. Whatever exists, has a real existence; and if so, it cannot be true that is has no existence. Whatever has a being must also exist in some certain, determinate manner, with such and such properties, affections, and attributes, with such and such proportions, aspects, and relations. And we can as little alter these by our opinions as we can cause the things themselves to exist and not exist, alternately, as our thoughts vary concerning them. Thus truth is somewhat determinate in itself; it exists independently of our notions concerning it. And the precise boundaries between that and falsehood are also determined by the real nature and properties of things, whether they are perceptible to us or not.

Truth, as it exists in the mind, is nothing but the perception of knowledge of that independent truth now mentioned, or a knowledge of things as they really exist. And as it relates to words and propositions, it is nothing but the right use of certain arbitrary signs, having a meaning annexed to them by a common consent, i.e., the using them in such a manner that they shall be conformable to, and expressive of, the real nature and properties of the thing treated of.

To return—Can any man think it equally true that he does, and that he does not, exist? I instance in this, because it is familiar; but the same question may be asked concerning every thing else. This is an universal dilemma, applicable to every thing that comes under consideration—“It is, or it is not.” No middle way can be taken. This is indeed no new discovery; it is self-evident, and a first principle.

Thus, that we either do, or do not, converse with sensible objects, so that one may be truly affirmed and the other denied, is as plain as it is that we either do, or do not, exist. We may proceed in the same manner to consider things, which, if they exist at all, lie beyond the reach of our animal senses. It is as certain in itself that there are, or that there are not, spiritual and invisible agents as it is that there are, or are not, sensible objects. And with the relation to the being of a God, it is as plain that there is, or that there is not, such a Being, as that there are, or are not, invisible agents in general.

We may descend in the same way to all the particular questions that have arisen concerning the particular nature of his Being, upon supposition he exists—concerning the nature of his government—concerning the reality of a revelation from him—concerning the immortality of our souls, &c. There must necessarily be a true and a false with relation to every question that can be proposed or come into our minds. We cannot so much as doubt of the truth of any particular proposition without supposing that truth lies on one side or the other.

It will be observed that I have not attempted to determine any of the above-mentioned questions. This was beyond my present design. All I aim at is to show that there is, and must be, a natural distinction between truth and error in general, a distinction which does not depend upon the precarious humours and opinions of men. Whatever judgment we may form in any particular case, it no ways affects the truth of it. Truth still remains the same simple, uniform, consistent thing, amidst all the various and contrary opinions of mankind concerning it.

The natural distinction between truth and falsehood being exploded, such paradoxes as these must follow: —That no man’s opinions are either right or wrong—That however contrary the sentiments of different men are to one another, they are both equally conformable to the nature and reality of the things they judge upon—That there are neither any knowing nor any foolish men in the world—That what we usually call wisdom and folly, are the same—And, what is stranger than all, that these paradoxes are neither true nor false—

If there be any such thing as wisdom, as opposed to ignorance and folly, it consists in knowing the truth; and a man is wise in the same degree that he does so. There is no knowledge, but of some truth or fact. Or, in other words, knowledge presupposes the being of truth, or something to be known. Now if there be no such thing as truth, there is nothing to be known; and, consequently, every man, yea, every being whatever, must be entirely ignorant and destitute of knowledge, as destitute of it, not only as “the horse and mule which hath no understanding,” but as any part of senseless inanimate matter. So that notwithstanding all the noise there has been in the world about wisdom and folly, notwithstanding the universal applause that has been bestowed on some persons, as gloriously distinguished from the rest of mankind by a happy genius and peculiar sagacity, yet in reality all this is at bottom nothing but empty words without any meaning at all. Socrates and Plato, Locke and Newton, were not superior, in point of wisdom, to the most illiterate husbandman. Nay; upon this supposition, even Pyrrho and Arcesilaus themselves, the great leaders of the skeptic tribe, knew no more than those whom they upbraided with their ignorance. This indeed is a consequence which the Pyrrhonists will hardly be persuaded to own. For there are none more apt than they to value themselves upon their superior wisdom and penetration. And they please themselves in particular with the thought of their being the discoverers of this mighty arcanum, that there is no such thing as truth, as distinguished from error. But if there be no such thing as truth, why will they please themselves for their sagacity in making this discovery? Or why will they endeavour to bring others over to their opinion, when by their first, and, I might add, their only, principle, those others are no more in an error than themselves. Such is the perplexity, the endless labyrinth, that a man brings himself into by asserting for truth that there is no such thing as truth.

We are indeed left entirely in the dark with respect to many things; our knowledge is, at best, but of small extent, and the opinions of men are various. It is this that has given some men occasion to confound truth and error, as though there were in nature no difference between them. But I hope it is needless to say anything more in opposition to an opinion so directly contrary to common sense.

I proceed now to the other distinction mentioned above: the distinction between right and wrong in conduct. And, as it was before observed, such a distinction must necessarily take place in consequence of the former. There are, perhaps, some things so indifferent as no ways to affect practice, whether they are true or false. But there are other principles which, being allowed true, immediately induce upon us an obligation to act in a particular, determinate manner, so that to act thus shall be right and reasonable, and to do the contrary unfit and wrong.

Thus, for example, it being supposed that there is some particular course or method of action which tends to promote our happiness upon the whole, and that a contrary conduct tends to our misery (which, by the way, are not bare suppositions, but facts), a fitness of the former course of action, in opposition to the latter, necessarily follows. For happiness being in itself a good and misery an evil, it is in itself right and reasonable to pursue the former and to avoid the latter. If to this we add (which experience shows to be fact also) that the same course of action which tends to private happiness tends to public also, this lays us under a twofold obligation to take that course. For it is in itself right to do good to others, as well as to ourselves, happiness being as valuable to them as it is to us. From this general principle, our obligation to what is usually called moral and social virtue, to fidelity, justice, charity, to humility and temperance, may be easily inferred. For it is apparent from experience that by the steady, uniform practice of these virtues, both the good of individuals and of the public is promoted. Indeed, it seems impossible but that such a practice as tends to the good of the one should tend to the good of the other also. For public happiness is nothing but the happiness of a number of individuals united in society, so that if the individuals of which the society consists be happy, the community must necessarily be happy also. And, on the other hand, the community is rendered miserable in the same degree that individuals are so. Virtue, then, is what we are under obligation to practice, without the consideration of a being of God or of a future state, barely from its apparent tendency to make mankind happy at present.

Again, let us suppose (what is at least supposable) that there is a God, a being who created and who governs the world in infinite wisdom and goodness, i.e., in such a manner as to communicate the greatest possible happiness to his creatures considered collectively. —This being is plainly the object of esteem, gratitude, love, reverence, truth, etc., to all his rational creatures. His character is in itself amiable and perfect. To treat him with contempt or disregard is to treat him as being what he is not, which certainly cannot be right. Piety, therefore, is what we are under obligation to, upon supposition there is any such being as this existing.

But farther—If there be such a being, he is perfect in all moral excellence, and therefore we and all other intelligent beings are under obligation to copy after and imitate him according to the condition and capacity of our natures, without the consideration of his enjoining it upon us by any express and positive law. For so far as we fall short of him, we fall short of perfection, according to the supposition, he being the rule and standard of perfection. And so, on the other hand, we are perfect in proportion as we resemble him in the temper of our minds and imitate him in the conduct of our lives. And this brings us, in another way, to the former condition, viz., that we are under obligation to practice what is usually called moral virtue; for by this we imitate God and fall in with his benevolent design in creating and governing the world.

Again—It follows upon the supposition of such a being that his declared will ought to be universally the rule of our actions, in whatever manner it is made known to us, whether by natural reason or supernatural revelation, and whether we are able to see the reason and grounds of his injunctions or not. For properly speaking, our obligation to obey the commands of such a being, as knows and wills always what is best, does not arise in any degree from the particular manner in which we come to the knowledge of his commands, or from our seeing the grounds of them, but solely from our knowing that they are in fact his commands. Thus, if this being has commanded us to submit ourselves to Jesus of Nazareth as his Son and Delegate and our Lord and Master, we ought to comply immediately with his will as soon as it is made known to us. For it is apparently wrong and unreasonable to thwart the will and authority of him who is infinitely wise and good, although he had no power to chastise us for it. It will not so much as bear a dispute, whether it is wrong or not, to act counter to the injunctions of that being in any case, who in every case enjoins that, and that only, which is reasonable for him to enjoin. —If he commands with wisdom and goodness, we cannot disobey without folly and wickedness.

But, after all, there is really no necessity of going so far to find our obligation to what is usually called moral virtue as to consider its tendency to happiness, its rendering us like God, the standard of perfection, or to enquire whether the practice of it be enjoined upon us by the positive will and command of God. We may find the grounds of this obligation nearer home, even in our own breasts. There is such a “law written in our hearts,” such an internal consciousness of the moral excellency of virtue and of the odiousness of the contrary, as really leaves us no room to doubt of our obligation to it, and so, in a great measure, supersedes all other arguments. For we cannot ordinarily violate the rules of justice, etc., without violating our own minds at the same time, and turning our own accusers.

The principal objection that can be urged against the moral difference of actions is taken from the difficulty there is, in some cases, to determine the boundaries between right and wrong, the variety of opinions that have prevailed in the world concerning questions of right, especially in political affairs, and the different, yea, contrary laws enacted by wise men in different ages and countries, and all equally under the notion of their being right and equitable. But, to use the words of a learned writer:

“As in painting, two very different colours, by diluting each other very slowly and gradually, may, from the highest intenseness in either extreme, terminate in the midst insensibly, and so run one into the other, that it shall not be possible to even for a skillful eye to determine exactly where the one ends and the other begins; and yet the colours differ as much as can be, not in degree only, but entirely in kind, as red and blue, or white and black. So though, perhaps, it may be very difficult in some nice and perplexed cases (which yet are very far from occurring frequently) to define exactly the bounds of right and wrong, just and unjust, and there may be some latitude in the judgment of different men and the laws of diverse nations, yet right and wrong are nevertheless totally and essentially different, even altogether as much as white and black, light and darkness” (Dr. S. Clarke).

The admirable writer, whose words I have here quoted, seems very charitably to attribute men’s entirely confounding right and wrong to the difficulty which they find in some cases to determine what is right and equitable and what is wrong and injurious, or to discern the terminating line between them. And this difficulty is doubtless what gives men an opportunity to oppose the notion of such a moral difference in actions, under some little colour of argument. However, an internal perception of the moral difference of things in general is so interwoven with our very nature that it is hardly credible that any man should really think all actions to be indifferent in their own nature. Or, if any actually entertain such an opinion, it is not natural. It does not proceed so much from men’s originally wanting clear ideas of the difference in general between right and wrong as from their having made these things indifferent, as far as their own practice could effect it. Men have naturally as clear a conception of the general difference between moral good and evil, antecedent to all consideration of human laws and compacts, yea, to the consideration of the will of God himself, as they have of the difference between light and darkness. But as the organs of sight may be abused and weakened to such a degree that a man shall at last perceive no difference between the night and the day, and as most of our other animal senses may be perverted and debauched so as to be incapable of answering their original design, so also men’s natural conscience of good and evil may, by frequent violations, lose its quickness, and the mind itself become blind, callous, and insensible. Our natural sense of the moral difference in actions and characters may be rendered dull and useless. And thus the law written in the hearts of men by the finger of God himself may be repealed and erased by the powerful influence of vice, whereupon they deny that there was ever any such law engraved on their minds. This is just as if Moses, when his “anger waxed hot,” and he cast the two “tables of the law” out of his hands and brake them beneath the mount, should have immediately denied that God had ever written them or given them to him to preserve. It is natural for men of corrupt minds and morals to endeavour to get rid of all uneasy reflections upon what is past, and all terrible presages of what may be the future, by entirely throwing aside the distinction between moral good and evil, as if these were but empty names without any meaning invented by civil and ecclesiastical tyrants to keep the world in awe.

However, although the vices of men may go far towards darkening their understandings, it is not to be supposed that the most degenerate of them ever arrive at such a state of blindness as to have no real sense of the difference between right and wrong, whatever they may pretend. For such a sense, in some degree of it, seems inseparable from a rational nature and cannot be totally extinguished, but with reason itself. And it is worth observing that, with how good a conscience soever, the greatest masters of skepticism pretend they commit the most flagrant immoralities under the notion of all things being indifferent in their own nature; yet they cannot help betraying themselves and showing their natural sense of right and wrong upon certain occasions. For who are more averse than they to take the character of “knave” to themselves, though they generally take no care not to deserve it? They choose to be esteemed as men of honesty and integrity, and when it comes to their own turn to be injured, they are as ready as any of their neighbours to accuse the aggressor of wrong and injustice. If their moral sense were before asleep, suffering injuries awakens it in a moment. And if they are not right down atheists, they are ready to think strange that God should let his thunder sleep while such villainies are perpetrated. —Thus hard is it for men to disguise the inward sentiments of their hearts in this case; the mask will drop off and nature peep out in some unguarded hour—

If men would go no farther than to assert that there are some questions of right so intricate and complicated that it is difficult or even impossible to determine them, none would contradict them but such arrogant and conceited persons as imagine their knowledge has no limits. But when, not content with this, they boldly strike at the foundation of every thing that is good and praiseworthy by denying the moral difference of actions in general, and yet upon every turn are complaining of injuries and abuses done or offered to themselves, it is hard to say whether they are more proper objects of pity or contempt, of indignation or ridicule, for they have doubtless a good title to all.

There can be no danger of being too severe in censuring men of this stamp. For what they say concerning the absolute indifference of actions is either false or true. If it be false, nothing is too bad to be said of them for thus setting aside the moral difference of action, for putting the most excellent virtues and the most odious vices upon the same footing, for making it as innocent for a child to murder his aged parents as to kill a viper, and to blaspheme his Maker as it is to deride a sot, and, in this way, dissolving all the ties and obligations both of private and of social virtue. But, on the other hand, if what they assert be true, there is not even a bare possibility of injuring them, for there can be no such things as wrong or injury, if all actions are absolutely indifferent in their own nature.

I hope it in some measure appears from what has been said that, as truth has a real existence in nature, so the distinction between right and wrong necessarily takes place in consequence thereof. And thus I have done with the first thing proposed.

The next thing proposed was to show that men are naturally endowed with faculties proper for the discerning of those differences of which we have been speaking. But this must be left for the subject of another discourse.

I shall conclude for the present with an obvious inference from what has been said, viz., that since truth and right have a real existence in nature, independent on the sentiments and practices of men, they do not necessarily follow the multitude, or major part; nor ought we to make number the criterion of true religion. Men are fickle and various and contradictory in their opinions and practices; but truth and moral rectitude are things fixed, stable and uniform, having their foundation in the nature of things. They will not change their nature out of complaisance to the most numerous and powerful body of men in the world. We may conform to them, but they will not condescend to us. Were number the mark of truth and right, religion itself would be a perfect Proteus, sometimes one thing and sometimes another, according to the opinion that happens to prevail in the world. But if one man may err, why not two? And if two, why not two thousand? And then, why not all mankind? If truth and right are somewhat fixed, and men fickle and various, men may err both with respect to principle and practice. But upon the other hand, if truth and right have no existence but in the opinions of men, then indeed they might depend upon number and multitude. But then it may be reasonably asked, how many votes are necessary to change a great lie into a glorious truth? How many to change a flagrant crime into a meritorious virtue? And a sinner into a saint? The church of Rome has been trying a great while to bring about these wonderful changes and revolutions, and has indeed effected it to the satisfaction of many. But nevertheless these are but some of the “lying wonders of him, whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all deceivableness and unrighteousness” [2 Thess 2:9-10]. It is still false that bread is flesh, or wine, blood. Murder remains a vice still; nor is breach of faith and perjury any virtue at all.

The “multitude” may “do evil,” and the “many, judge falsely.” “Iniquity” may be “established by a law;” it may have all the power and wealth of the world engaged on its side to support it, while truth and right may be left solitary and friendless. Noah was left alone—singular indeed, but still “a preacher of righteousness.” He was a “perfect and upright man in his generation;” and, for that reason, was preserved in the ark, the multitude being first drowned in a flood of vice, and then deluged in a flood of water. Thus also was Lot singularly righteous, while the multitude in Sodom and Gomorrah first burned with impure lusts, and then were devoured with flames from heaven, “being set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” And how few were there that adhered to our blessed Saviour while he was in the world? He was “despised and rejected of Men,” as well as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” It was the body of the people that was against him. They did not “discern the time,” nor “judge what is right.” Even to this day, how small is the number of those who “worship the Father in spirit and in truth,” according to the simplicity of the gospel, compared to those that are immersed in gross ignorance, superstition, and all kinds of immorality? The whole collective body of Christians makes but a small company compared to the rest of the world. The Roman Catholics again are much more numerous than the Protestants, and they have long ago voted us heretics. However, there is no man in his senses that will allow himself to be in an error because he cannot get so many hands held up in favour if his tenets as another. Infallibility cannot be the result of a great number of fallibles, nor perfection be found in a large body of such as are each of them, considered singly, imperfect. But nevertheless, we daily see that the principal argument with which some endeavour to propagate their opinions is that they are generally received, i.e., in that particular place or country; and if they can but add that they were the doctrines embraced by their pious forefathers, this they reckon such demonstration as no man in his senses can resist. Such idle, superficial cant may gull the thoughtless multitude, but will be despised by all others.

If we must needs be governed by number in the choice of our religion, it is certainly reasonable to be governed by the greatest number. And if so, we must be neither Calvinists nor Arminians, Trinitarians nor Unitarians, Quakers nor Anabaptists, Churchmen nor Presbyterians, Papists nor Protestants, nor Jews, nor Mohammedans, but we must turn heathens at once, Paganism being the most universal Orthodoxy in the world.

It will be observed that I have said nothing for or against any of the different parties here enumerated. All I propose is to show the unreasonableness of choosing our religion by vote. This, considering the fickleness and capriciousness of mankind, amounts to much the same thing with choosing it by lot. For whether the major or minor part shall have truth and right of their side is entirely precarious. Today it may be so, tomorrow otherwise.

Nor is it needless for us to be upon our guard in this matter, considering how natural it is to the generality of mankind, especially to such as are of an indolent, incurious make, to follow the most numerous and powerful party, both in principle and practice, without troubling themselves about the merits of the cause. Many would almost shudder at the thoughts of an unfashionable vice, or an unpopular doctrine, who would nevertheless readily embrace the same vice and the same doctrine when unattended with the disadvantage of being contrary to the mode. What we abhor when out of date and fashion, we are apt to admire upon a change of times when it becomes reputable. It is most agreeable to us to herd with the multitude, to believe and act as they do, right or wrong. This gratifies our innate propensity towards society, and many advantages naturally attend him that has the majority on his side. He procures the goodwill of all about him by falling in with their favourite opinions and practices, while the dissenter is either ridiculed or railed at, and labours under innumerable inconveniences. Hence it often comes to pass that we are insensibly attached to such corrupt opinions and practices as we should have abhorred, had they not been reputable and popular. For the sake of being with “the many,” we daily see some not only renounce their reason and understanding, but break through all the ties of honour, friendship, humanity, charity and piety, making entire shipwreck of a good conscience. Afterwards they imagine that number is the principle criterion of truth and flatter themselves that they were always secure of being in the right, while they adhere to that side that can carry the vote. This conforming humour is too prevalent in the world at present, and always was. Particularly it was so amongst the Israelites in the time of Moses, for which reason that great Jewish Lawgiver gave them the prohibition with which I shall close the present discourse: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment” (Exodus 23:2).

[1] See Dr. Clarke's paraphrase.

©2004 American Unitarian Conference