American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition


Back to the Seven Sermons page

Objections Considered

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.

Having, in the preceding discourse, proved the right and duty of free inquiry and private judgment in matters of religion by direct and plain arguments both from reason and revelation, there was, perhaps, no occasion for my exercising your patience any further by entering upon a consideration of the objections that have been raised against this doctrine. For no objections can signify anything against a doctrine once proved true in fact. However, since some men may think themselves ill used unless their arguments are distinctly considered, I shall devote the following hour to examine the principal objections against the doctrine of the foregoing discourse, setting them in the strongest point of light I am able. The spiritual tyrants and lordly bigots of the earth have indeed triumphed gloriously, as though they had gained a mighty victory over freedom of thought, their old and mortal enemy, and laid her bleeding and gasping at their feet. But whether these are the triumphs of real heroes, or only the vain gasconades and Te Deums of imaginary conquerors, will, perhaps, be easy to determine when we come to take a view of their weapons and to see the manner in which they have employed them. 

I shall not have much regard to order and method in proposing the objections now to be considered, but mention them just as they present themselves to my mind. And, in the first place, it may be objected, 

1. “That God himself, under the Mosaic dispensation, required that idolaters and dissenters from the established church should be punished with death.” From hence it may be argued, “That uncontrolled liberty in religious matters ought not to be allowed of; but the true church is obliged in duty to restrain and correct infidels and schismatics, and all in general that she judges unsound in the faith.” To this it may be answered, 

1st. That we cannot argue from what was lawful under the Jewish economy to what is lawful since that is abolished and superseded by another so different from it as the Christian. There might be, and doubtless were, some peculiar reasons for authorizing and enjoining such a discipline then, which do not take place at present. This might be as peculiar to Judaism as circumcision or the sacrificing of beasts, etc. And in reality it does not any more follow from the Jews being commanded to extirpate idolaters that Christians may destroy heathens and heretics, than it does from Abraham's being commanded to sacrifice his son that all parents may and ought to sacrifice their children now.  

It is to be remembered that Judaism was at least as much a political as a religious institution. The Jews had God for their immediate king and lawgiver, both in church and state. Their civil and ecclesiastical polity were blended together, and, being derived from the same source, every violation of the law of Moses might be considered and punished as an offence against the state, in a greater or less degree. And idolatry being in these circumstances equivalent to high treason, it is not strange that a capital punishment should be annexed to it. But the case is much altered since the promulgation of the Christian religion. (Christ's kingdom is not at all a kingdom of this world. It is wholly a religious institution. The laws, the penalties, the rewards of it, are wholly of a spiritual nature; and men are to be won over to it, and kept in it, only by spiritual and moral means.  

But 2ndly, If the true church ought to punish such as she looks upon to be erroneous, heretical or schismatical, then a war must immediately commence in Christendom, and continue 'till all are destroyed but one party; for each sect thinks itself in the right, and that all the rest are tinctured with heresy. This must certainly be the consequence of this maxim that the right of using violence and persecution is the prerogative of the true church—which one would think sufficient to convince any reasonable man that the maxim is false. Besides, from whence comes this doctrine that true orthodox Christians have a right to persecute heretics and unbelievers (i.e., to be more wicked and immoral than heretics and unbelievers)? The scripture indeed (and experience very often) teaches us that “those who will live godly in Christ Jesus must suffer persecution,” but not that they must persecute others [2 Tim. 3:12].

But perhaps it will be objected in the second place,

2. “That our Lord himself required his apostles to use external force, in order to bring men over to the true faith if gentler methods failed of success.” The objection will be taken from the parable of the supper, Luke 14. When the guests that were bidden refused the invitation, the master of the feast is represented as saying to his servant, verse 23, “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” “Now as the servant was commanded to compel the guests to come to the supper, so the apostles were enjoined to use external violence, if necessary, in order to bring men over to a belief of the gospel, from whence it follows that men are not left to their freedom in religious matters.”   

The 1st thing I would observe with relation to this objection is that great caution is necessary in the application of parables and allegories, lest the similitude should be carried farther than was originally intended. Nor is it by any means safe to build such a doctrine (or rather such a practice) as that of compulsion in religious matters, but upon the most plain and express command.

2ndly, This parable, at most, only authorizes the compelling of infidels to embrace the gospel, and so it has nothing to do with the controversies amongst the different sects of Christians.

3rdly, Although it should be allowed that this parable enjoined the inspired apostles to compel men, by external violence, to embrace Christianity, it will not follow that uninspired men since, men who have no commission immediately from heaven, have a right to do the same.

4thly, It is to be observed that, according to the parable, the persons to be compelled are not the same who had before obstinately rejected the kind invitation given to them, but such as had not yet been sent to. For when the master sends out his servant a second time to compel people to come in, it follows—“For I say unto you that those men who were bidden, shall not taste of my supper”—so that even according to this parable, those who will not be persuaded by gentle methods are to be given over, and not to have any farther means used with them. From whence it follows,

5thly, That none at all are to be compelled by external violence, for we cannot suppose that force should be applied first of all, and before other methods prove ineffectual, if at all.

6thly, Either the apostles did not understand this as a command to use violence in propagating Christianity or they neglected to obey it, neither of which can be supposed, had there really been such a command. They never attempted to use force, but declared, on the contrary, that ‘the weapons of their warfare were not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds,’ etc. (2 Cor. 10:4).

7thly, That this cannot be the sense of the parable appears from hence, that it is, in the nature of the thing, impossible to force men really to believe the gospel and become good Christians, though one had more dragoons to employ in this pious work, than Louis the XIVth sent to convert the Huguenots. Faith and repentance are the work of reason and the spirit of God, and cannot be wrought in a man by a cudgel, sword, or a gallows.

8thly, Were this in itself possible, how could twelve unarmed apostles, who were allowed to carry only a staff with them in their journeys, convert the whole world by force of arms?

9thly, and lastly, After all the flourish that has been made with this passage by Roman Catholics and popish Protestants, the word we render “compel” as often signifies a moral as a physical compulsion. And the subject here spoken of necessarily determines it to such a signification in this place. It is as if the master of the feast had said to his servant, “Since the persons before invited to my supper [the Jews] refuse to come, go to others [the Gentile nations] and give them the same invitation; and use the greatest importunity with them: reason with them, exhort and persuade them; use all rational methods to convince them and bring them in.”

But I must proceed to another objection, and perhaps one may be urged in some such manner as this

3. “If every man is allowed to think and judge for himself, the consequence will be that many will fall into erroneous and hurtful opinions. This doctrine opens a door for heresies to enter into the church; it gives men a liberty to trample upon all our creeds and confessions of faith, to depart from the doctrines of their pious forefathers, and to despise their spiritual guides. And what will this issue in, but the overthrow of all religion?” To this objection I would answer,

1st. That it does not follow from men's being at liberty to judge for themselves, and to choose their own religion, that they are at liberty to judge wrong and to reject the true religion, let it be what it will. If they are obliged to judge and choose for themselves at all, they are obliged to judge truly and justly, and to reject only what is wrong. The right of private judgment does not imply that it is indifferent whether a man judges truly or not, anymore than a man's right of disposing of his own property implies that he may as innocently squander it away in rioting and drunkenness, as pay his debts with it or appropriate it to charitable uses. As a man has not a right to do what is wrong with his own substance, so neither has he any to judge wrong with his own understanding. He is under a moral obligation to reject error and to embrace truth, as far as he is able to detect the former and to discern the latter.

2ndly, As the right of private judgment does not leave men at liberty to judge wrong and to embrace a false religion, so neither has the exercising that right any tendency to mislead men, as the objection supposes. The tendency of it is directly the contrary way. Free examination, weighing arguments for and against with impartiality, is the way to find the truth. Who imagines that free inquiry into philosophical subjects has any tendency to lead men into a wrong idea of the natural world? No one was ever so infatuated as to assert this. And it is in all respects as improbable that free inquiry into religious subjects should lead us into wrong notions concerning the moral world. One would think that a man who had received his religious principles upon mature and deliberate consideration, and so had in his own mind rational arguments to support them, could not have the least apprehension of their suffering anything by being thoroughly scanned and examined to the bottom. Error and imposture fly from the light, like the owl and bat, but truth and honesty, like the noble eagle, face to the sun. The cause of error and superstition may suffer by a critical examination—its security is to lurk in the dark—but the true religion flourishes the more, the more people exercise their right of private judgment. This is apparent, and therefore it is no uncharitableness to suppose that all who are backward to have their doctrines called in question, and to stand a fair trial at the bar of impartial reason, have at least some secret suspicion in their own minds that they will not stand the test and ‘come forth as gold when it is tried’ [Job 23:10] but be found no better than dross. We pay but a bad compliment to our religion when we cry out that it is in danger if men are left to the free exercise of their own rational faculties in judging of it. A man that is conscious his cause at court is good chooses it should be tried by the most severe and critical eye. But he that either knows or suspects he has a dirty one had much rather that people would spare themselves the trouble of examining into its merits and take his own word for the goodness of it.

But 3rdly, As to the lamentable havoc which the objection supposes will be made amongst our creeds and formularies if the doctrine of free inquiry should prevail, this is, doubtless, a very natural consequence, for this would probably prove fatal, at least to many articles contained in them. For it is plain that many of them are stuffed with the most ridiculous jargon, and are as contrary to scripture as they are to common sense. But this, instead of being an objection against free inquiry, is one of the strongest arguments for it. If these creeds and formularies were true, agreeable to reason and revelation, the more thoroughly they are examined the better, for then their truth would appear. But if they are false, it is still best they should be examined, in order to their being exploded. It is no matter how old or how new they are. Truth does not die with age, and then revive again, as is fabled of the phoenix—it flourishes in immortal youth. Error may indeed become venerable and gray-headed with length of time, but a falsehood of a thousand years standing remains as much a falsehood as ever, although it may have been consecrated by the church and transmitted to posterity in a creed. Whatever truths it may have had to keep it company, and however it may have been preserved amidst the storms that have beat upon the church, it is only like one of Noah's unclean beasts preserved in the ark, amongst those of a pure and more useful nature. There is nothing more foolish and superstitious than a veneration for ancient creeds and doctrines, as such, and nothing more unworthy a reasonable creature than to value principles by their age, as some do their wines. But indeed this is as common as it is ridiculous. With many people, “Antiquity! Antiquity!” is the cry, and, “Who will be so hardy as to dispute the truth of what was believed a thousand years ago?” just as if what was false formerly were not so still, but might be ripened and refined by age into a doctrine of grace. Most things are, indeed, changed by time. Time makes the child a man. Time makes the ignorant wise. Time often turns a friend into a foe, and foe into a friend. ‘The fashion of the world passeth away’ [1 John 2:17] by time. And time shall change the whole face of nature. But truth, like the “Father of lights” is without “variableness, or shadow of turning” [James 1:17].

To proceed, 4thly, It is supposed in the last mentioned objection that freedom of inquiry will naturally bring our spiritual guides into contempt and weaken their authority. To this I reply that it cannot possibly be of any disadvantage to the sober and rational part of the clergy, but has a tendency to make them more esteemed. But as to the vain and proud, the ignorant and assuming, the enthusiastic and superstitious, it has doubtless a natural tendency to bring these into contempt—and the sooner the better, that so they may not have so much power to do mischief. These are the persons that are generally the most averse to people's seeing and judging for themselves, and the reason why they are so is too apparent to need mentioning.

But 5thly, and lastly, Upon supposition that the cause of truth and real religion might suffer in some respects by persons exercising their right of private judgment, yet this is no just reason for denying them such a liberty. This right is given them by God and nature, and the gospel of Christ, and no man has a right to deprive another of it, under a notion that he will make an ill use of it and fall into erroneous opinions. We may as well pick our neighbour's pocket, for fear he should spend his money in debauchery, as take from him his right of judging for himself and choosing his religion, for fear he should judge amiss and abuse his liberty.

But I must hasten to another objection, which is frequently urged with a great deal of confidence, and very little reason. It is near akin to that last mentioned and may be put into some such form as this:

4. “If all are left at liberty to choose their own religion, and to enjoy it unmolested, we shall have innumerable sects springing up amongst us, which tends to confusion and destroys the peace and unity of the church. It is therefore expedient that the governors of the church should enjoin upon all the belief of certain articles of faith, and the observation of certain modes and rites of worship. Without some common rule of faith, worship and discipline beyond what the scriptures contain, there can be no sufficient bond of union amongst Christians, and so the church must inevitably be crumbled to pieces, whereas there ought to be no schism in that spiritual body.” With relation to this objection, I would observe,

1st. That if any rule of faith, worship, and discipline, besides that which our Saviour and his apostles have left us, be necessary in order to the peace and good government of the church, then the church had no peace and was not well governed during the apostolic age. For Christians had then no common rule of faith, worship, and discipline besides that which they received from our Lord himself, or his apostles, who were under the extraordinary influence and direction of his spirit, which rule is transmitted to us in the writings of the New Testament and is sufficient now, for the regulation of the church, if it was then. That this was sufficient then, is not denied, and therefore it cannot be deficient at present.

But 2ndly, If any farther regulations had been necessary in order to preserve the peace and unity of the church, it is strange that neither our blessed Saviour, who “loved the church and gave himself for it” [Eph. 5:25], nor the apostles, who lived and died in the service of the church, should have taken more care to provide for its peace and prosperity. Can we suppose that they did their work to the halves, and left others to finish and perfect it?

3rdly, Who gave the governors of the church any authority in matters of faith, worship, and discipline? Do we find one word of it in scripture? No. The church of Christ, as such, has no legislator besides Christ himself, whom the Father “has made head over all things to the church” [Eph. 1:22]. And whatever church that be whose rulers have any power of legislation, so far forth it is not the church of Christ, for Christ equally forbids all his disciples to assume authority over their brethren, and to submit to any who shall arrogate to themselves any authority in matters of a religious concern.

4tbly, and lastly, As no order of men has any authority to enjoin the belief of any articles of faith, or the use of any modes of worship, not expressly and explicitly pointed out in the scriptures, so neither has the enjoining any such a tendency to preserve the peace and harmony of the church, but directly the contrary. The confusion and disorder that have hitherto been in the church have not arisen from Christians exercising their own judgment and worshiping God according to their consciences (though in a manner somewhat different from others), but from the pride and insolence of those who deny their Christian brethren this liberty, and who undertake to prescribe authoritatively to others what they shall believe and how they shall worship. Were it not for the turbulent, domineering spirit of some Ecclesiastics, who desire more power than Christ saw fit to entrust them with, there would be but little of that wrangling and discord which have hitherto disturbed the peace of the church. The divisions and contentions that have hitherto happenned, and still subsist in the Christian church, are all, in a manner, owing to the unchristian temper and conduct of those who could not content themselves with scripture orthodoxy, with the simple and spiritual worjhip of the Father, enjoined by our Saviour, and with the platform of church discipline contained in the New Testament, but must go to coining new articles of faith, new modes and rites of worship, making new canons, and prescribing new rules for the regulation of the church. It is about these comparatively novel inventions that the governors and “fathers of the church” (as some affest to call them) have generally been more warm and zealous than about an holy and godly life. They have ordinarily given pretty good quarter to the most vicious and debauched of men, provided their own authority was acknowledged, their own peculiar whimsies embraced, and their decent (or rather ridiculous) forms and ceremonies were religiously observed. But the most peaceable, sober and virtuous persons, who would not submit to their tyrannical yoke, have all along been created with contempt and inhumanity, as being heretics, schismatics, etc. And all this perhaps only for not practising such rites as have no more relation to Christianity than telling beads, or cracking the fingers, and for not believing such doctrines as have no more to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ than the idle stories of Bel and the Dragon, or Tobit and his dog. Here is the true source of religious discord. Had Ecclesiastics, instead of ‘lording it over God's heritage’ [1 Pet. 5:3] and setting up their own authority in the room of Christ's, put on “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” [2 Cor. 10:1] and set a better ‘example to the flock,’ had they endeavoured to remove “all stumbling blocks” [Matt. 13:41] out of the way, instead of insisting upon indifferent things as necessary terms of Christian communion, had they taught and practised “the weightier matters of law” [Matt. 23:23], instead of spending their zeal upon trifles, had they taught mutual forbearance and charity, instead of fomenting a furious party spirit and exciting ignorant bigots to rail at sober peaceable Christians—had they done thus, the peace and harmony of the church might have been very well preserved, without creeds and formularies or an exact uniformity in faith and worship. Our blessed Saviour and his apostles, it is plain, have left matters so that there may be a considerable latitude and difference in the sentiments of good Christians, and in the manner of their worship. But His ambassadors, and their successors, it seems, have found out that this is a great defect. Accordingly they undertake to supply it, under the notion of preserving the peace of the church. And this is what has hitherto been, and must continue to be, the cause of angry debates and endless contentions, a means of dividing the church, instead of uniting it, and of inspiring Christians with mutual rage, instead of mutual love and brotherly affection.

It may be objected, in the fifth place,

5. “That the doctrine of private judgment is inconsistent with that of a standing ministry in the Christian church, appointed by Christ to instruct people in religious matters. An order of men was divinely instituted to do the office of instructors, or teachers, in the church. Consequently there must be others whose duty it is to learn of them and not to pretend to a right of judging for themselves. It is incumbent upon the Laity to go to their spiritual guides and to receive their instructions with humility and reverence, without pretending to dispute the truth of what they assert in the name of the Lord.” This, we know, is the manner in which many express themselves upon this subject. And the positive, dogmatical air with which most of our pulpit discourses are delivered is a sufficient proof that these sentiments are adopted by the generality of those that style themselves the “ambassadors of Jesus Christ.” But to this objection it may be answered in the first place,

1st. That, allowing there is somewhere in the Christian church a set of men whose office it is to teach authoritatively and by divine right, still people must judge for themselves who these men are. Almost all public teachers of religion pretend a divine right to be so. But they do not all teach the same doctrines. How then shall we know whom to choose for our spiritual instructor, without examining into, and judging upon, the claims of those who demand our attention, and the direction of our understandings and consciences?

But 2ndly, Supposing we have found who these persons are, to whom this authority is given, it does not follow that they are to be implicitly believed in everything they say, or even in any thing. No man is to be believed implicitly, unless he is infallible, but infallibility is not necessarily connected with a divine right to teach. Although it should be allowed that kings reign by divine right, in the highest sense pleaded for by the advocates for passive obedience and non-resistance, still it is possible that they may make an ill use of their power, command things expressly forbidden by God, and forbid what God has enjoined. In either of these cases, it will be allowed that they have no title to the active obedience of their subjects. So also, he that has a divine right to instruct others in religion may possibly speak false, either ignorantly or with design; and if he does so, no one will be so extravagant as to say that he ought to be believed. God has given him a right to teach, but it is only to teach truth; if therefore he ‘teaches for doctrines the commandments of men’ [Matt. 15:9] and lies, for the gospel of Christ, he exceeds his commission and has no more right to demand our assent than any other liar or deceiver, who is unconsecrated. So that let us carry our idea of the authority of Christian teachers ever so high, yet if we stop short of infallibility, we are in reason obliged to examine all that they say, and either to receive or reject it as evidence of its truth does or does not appear. Even the apostles themselves (who were divinely-authorized teachers in a much higher and more proper sense than any set of men can pretend to be at this day) never pretended to such a right of dictating to others what they should believe and do, as interfered with the right of private judgment. Christian teachers in after ages are (or at least ought to be) only commentators upon the scriptures, and we cannot suppose their commentaries have greater weight and authority than the text itself.

A man of superior knowledge and integrity may be of great advantage in a Christian society by helping his brethren and neighbours to a right understanding of the scriptures, although he be not infallible, and although nothing he advances is to be deceived for truth without examination and proof. We have authorized professors and teachers of law, physics, philosophy, etc., who are doubtless helpful to such as devote themselves to the study of these sciences. But who ever imagined that the end of their institution was authoritatively to dictate what is true in their respective provinces in such a sense as to preclude examination and to render it unnecessary for their pupils and auditors to enquire into the foundation of what they assert? This is so far from being the case, that ’tis confessed their chief business is to open and enlarge the minds of their scholars, to propose reasons and arguments to their understandings and to endeavour to make them apprehend their force, and in this way to bring them acquainted with the sciences to which they respectively apply themselves. A mathematician would think his pupil had made but a small proficiency if he only believed, upon authority, all the propositions in Euclid and other books of the same kind, without seeing what principles they were grounded upon, or being able to demonstrate them himself. And as the business of an instructor is not to enforce certain dogma's purely by dint of authority, so the business of a learner is not to receive for truth whatever his instructor, in any science, advances as such, but to exercise his own intellectual powers and to enter into the reasons and grounds of what is taught, and to receive nothing without evidence. No one imagines that a person's exercising his own understanding in this manner is inconsistent with the notion of his having somebody to lead and instruct him in any branch of natural knowledge. And the case is much the same in morals and religion. A man’s being an authorized (if you please, a divinely authorized) instructor in religious matters is no ways inconsistent with the right of private judgment in others. Indeed if they reject the truth when it is sufficiently proved, they do it at their peril; and that, let it be offered by whom it will. But still all are left at as much liberty to examine and judge for themselves, as if there were no public teachers at all.

I proceed now to the sixth and last objection I shall have time to consider. The objection I intend may be put in some such form as this

6. “Although men may be at liberty to judge for themselves and to choose their own religion, when the civil magistrate does not interpose with his authority, yet when articles of faith have once received a royal sanction, and a particular religion is established by the laws of the land, then certainly we are bound to dismiss all our former scruples of conscience and to submit to the religion of the state. For the apostle has told us expressly that “the powers that be are ordained of God,” that “he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God, and shall receive to himself damnation,” etc. [Rom. 13:1-2].

With respect to this objection, I would beg leave to query in the first place whether Christians are bound in conscience to believe and conform to that religion, whatever it be, which is established by law in the countries where they respectively live? This is a plain question, and they either are or are not so obliged. There is no medium. If they are not so obliged, but only in case they apprehend the established religion is agreeable to the word and will of God, this supposes a right of private judgment, and so gives up the whole point in debate. But on the other hand, if they are bound in conscience to conform in the manner before expressed, from hence it follows that he that lives in Scotland is bound in conscience to be a Presbyterian, he that lives in England to be an Episcopalian, he that lives in Italy, France, Spain or Portugal to be a Roman Catholic, he that lives in Constantinople must be a Mahometan, and he that lives in a Heathen country must conscientiousiy comply with all the idolatrous rites that are enjoined by the civil authority, and so be an Heathen in order to obey the gospel-precept concerning submission to lawful authority. Moreover, upon this supposition, it follows that a traveler who has occasion to pass through all those different countries, must change his religion with his climate. He must successively be a Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Papist, Muslim and a Heathen, and then be a good orthodox believer when he comes into Christendom again. These consequences are unavoidable upon supposition that the subject ought universally to embrace the religion of the supreme magistrate. And some men will not be shocked at these consequences, for nothing pleases them better than to change their religion as often as they can with conveniency and profit. Oaths and subscriptions are, with them, of no signification; if “they swear to their own hurt” [Psalm 15:4], it is but to change. They are governed by the fashion in their religion, as much as they are in the cut of their clothes; they have none but a state conscience, and either rail or smile at those who are so whimsical and superstitious as to pretend to have any other. What they have to do in order to know the true religion is not to inquire into the nature of things and the infallible oracles of  God, but to search the Codes and Registers and Lawbooks in the country where they live.    However, it is to be hoped that some others do not trifle with their Maker in this manner, but think it of some importance to know the will of God and to obey it conscientiously, whatever may be the religion by law established. Is it not possible for the command of the civil  magistrate to interfere and clash with the laws of God? No man will pretend to deny this.    Whose authority then is to be regarded—that of the king, or that of the Monarch of the universe, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Will any man say it is not our business as men, and especially as Christians, to judge whether the injunctions of the civil magistrate may be complied with confidently with our allegiance and loyalty to the supreme Majesty of heaven and earth? And if they cannot, will any one make it a serious question ‘whether it is better to obey God or man?’ [Acts 5:29].

But 2ndly, I would humbly inquire how any civil magistrate came by any authority at all in religious matters, and who gave him this authority? Has the supreme magistrate of every nation, as such, a right to make a religion for his subjects? No, for then a heathen magistrate would have a right to enjoin idolatry and paganism and to punish all Christians that came within his territories, if they would not conform. Does the gospel of Christ give the Christian magistrate authority in matters of faith and worship? No. It says not a word about any such thing.

But 3rdly, and lastly here, It is evident beyond all dispute that the apostle, in enjoining obedience to the civil magistrate, had no thought of enjoining obedience to him in religious matters, for all the supreme magistrates then in the world were Pagan, and idolatry was the religion by law established. And certainly we cannot suppose that the apostles could enjoin it as a Christian duty to embrace the established religion, when that was directly opposite to Christianity. To have threatened damnation to those who disobeyed in this case, would have been to threaten damnation to themselves and to denounce an anathema against all the Christians in the world, and even against Jesus Christ himself, for these were all dissenters from the established religion, and thousands gloriously suffered martyrdom for refusing to comply with the religion of the state and for asserting that right of private judgment which we are now endeavouring to defend.

According to St. Paul, the magistrate ‘is ordained of God for a terror to evildoer, and for a praise to them that do well’ [Rom. 13:4]. His office is to preserve the liberties and natural rights of his subjects, one of the most important of which rights is that of private judgment, and an unmolested enjoyment of a man's own religion, let it be what it will, provided he is a peaceable subject and a good member of society. These and such like are the ends for which, according to scripture, the magistrate is ordained of God, and not to make a religion for his subjects. This would be to invade, and encroach upon, those natural rights of his subjects, which it is his business to preserve inviolable. As the Jews said occasionally to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar” [John 19:15], so Christians, as such, may say, “We have no king but Jesus Christ,” and they are traitors to him their lawful sovereign if they swear allegiance to any other as the lord of their faith and the director of their religious conduct. And indeed the very mention of articles of faith established by law is as great a solecism as mathematics established by law and deserves a worse name than I choose to give in this place.

Thus I have endeavoured with all possible brevity and plainness to answer the most material objections against freedom of thought and the rights of conscience in religious concerns. I have aimed at provoking no sect of Christians whatever, nor at pleasing any, but have spoken my sentiments, such as they are, with the honest simplicity that I think becomes a Christian, and with such freedom as I apprehend is agreeable to the cause I have been attempting to defend: the cause of religious liberty, that liberty which God and the gospel of his Son have granted to us, that liberty, for the sake of which our pious forefathers forsook their native land, where they had a goodly heritage and sought a safe retreat in this Western world, a wilderness inhabited by savage beasts and more savage men, though both were less savage than some of those episcopal blood-thirsty tyrants from whose rage they fled. This is a cause of no less importance even to the present happiness of human society than that of civil liberty in opposition to arbitrary power. And here I beg leave to use the words of a truly catholic prelate of the church of England—“To liberty and property,” says he, “I add the free exercise of religion as necessary to the happiness of a governed society, because as there is no tyranny so odious to God as tyranny over the conscience, so is there no slavery so uneasy and ignominious as a forced religion or a worship imposed upon…men by the fear or application of outward inconveniencies, besides that nothing promotes the flourishing condition of a nation more than the indulgence of this freedom to all whose principles are not manifestly inconsistent with the public safety.” Thus the Bishop of Winchester, the noted scourge of civil and eccleliastical tyranny.

I shall now close with a few words by way of application.

And 1st, Let us all “stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free,” and not suffer ourselves to be “entangled with any yoke of bondage” [Gal. 5:1]. If we have submitted to the yoke hitherto and ingloriously subjected ourselves to any human impositions in religious matters, it is better to throw off the yoke even now, than to let it gall us all our lifetime; it is not yet too late to assert our liberty and free ourselves from an ignominious slavery to the dictates of men.

Let us take pains to find out the truth, and after we are settled in our judgment concerning any religious tenet or practice, adhere to it with constancy of mind, ’till convinced of our error in a rational way. Let us despise the frowns and censures of those vain conceited men who set themsclves up for the oracles of truth and the standard of orthodoxy, and then call their neighbours hard names—We have not only a right to think for ourselves in matters of religion, but to act for ourselves also. Nor has any man whatever, whether of a civil or sacred character, any authority to control us, unless it be by the gentle methods of argument and persuasion. To Christ alone, the supreme and only head of the Christian Church, and the final judge of mankind—to him alone we are accountable for not believing his doctrines and obeying his commandments, as such. And whosoever attempts to restrain or control us takes it upon him to rule another man’s servants, forgetting that he also is a man under authority and must hereafter stand or fall by a sentence from the same mouth with ourselves.

Did I say we have a right to judge and ask for ourselves? I now add—it is our indispensable duty to do it. This is a right which we cannot relinquish, or neglect to exercise if we would, without being highly culpable, for it is absolutely unalienable in its own nature. We may dispose of our temporal substance if we please, but God and nature and the Gospel of Christ enjoin it upon us a duty to maintain the right of private judgment and to worship God according to our consciences, as much as they enjoin us to give an alms to the poor, to love God and our neighbour, and practise universal righteousness; and we may as well talk of giving up our right to the latter as the former. They are all duties, and not rights simply—duties equally founded in the reason of things, duties equally commanded by the same God, duties equally enjoined by the same Lord, duties equally required in the same gospel. And a neglect of the duty of private judgment may possibly be attended with worse consequences to ourselves and others than the neglect of almost any other. For he that does not examine for himself what is true and right, asks entirely in the dark, and so may run into the most irregular and destructive practices that can be conceived of, just as his weak or wicked guides are pleased to prompt him. He is fit only for a tool to the devil and his emissaries, and may flatter himself that he is doing God good service, while he is imbruing his hands in the blood of the innocent and persecuting the church of Christ.

But 2ndly, and to conclude, while we are asserting our own liberty and Christian rights, let us be consistent and uniform, and not attempt to encroach upon the rights of others. They have the same right to judge for themselves and to choose their own religion, with ourselves. And nothing is more incongruous than for an advocate for liberty to tyrannize over his neighbours. We have all liberty to think and ask for ourselves in things of a religious concern; and we ought to be content with that, without desiring a liberty to oppress and grieve others. However, we have some ignorant railing zealots amongst us, fired with a furious party spirit, who are not satisfied that they enjoy their own liberty, but mourn that their neighbours enjoy the same, and that they have it not in their power to assist them for their righteous sentiments. They groan under the righteous act of toleration as much as our fathers groaned under the unrighteous one of uniformity. However, through mercy, we have but a few men of this stamp amongst us, and those are such ignorant and despicable creatures that they are more proper objects of pity than of anger. My brethren, God forbid that we should discover any thing of this same unchristian temper, or begrudge others the enjoyment of those rights which we ourselves esteem so dear, sacred and valuable. Let us, “as much as in us lies, live peaceably with all men” [Rom. 12:18], but suffer none to lord it over our consciences. Let us avoid a contracted, censorious spirit in ourselves, and pity and despise it in others. Let us be courteous and friendly to all men of what denomination soever they be and how much soever their religious principles may differ from our own. If we think them erroneous, let us not rail at them, but reason with them in the spirit of meekness. Let us use no methods but those of sober argument and kind persuasion, in order to bring men over to a belief and practice of “the truth as it is in Jesus,” and let us scorn those who are for using any other methods with us. God grant that how different soever our sentiments are, we may be united in love and charity, and that Christians of all persuasions, and all churches, may live and behave in such a manner as to meet at last above and join in the “general assembly and church of the first-born which are written in heaven” [Heb. 12:23]. Amen. 

©2005 American Unitarian Conference