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On Orthodoxy


James Freeman Clarke

The majority, in any particular place, is apt to call itself orthodox, and to call its opponents heretics. But the majority in one place may be the minority in another. The majority in Massachusetts is the minority in Virginia. The majority in England is the minority in Rome or Constantinople. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate of all England, gave Mr. Curzon a letter of introduction to the Patriarch of Constantinople, the head of the Greek Church. But the Patriarch had never heard of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and inquired, "Who is he?"

Nevertheless, it is a very common argument that such and such a doctrine, being held by the great majority of Christians, must necessarily by true. "It is possible," it is said, "that the great majority of Christian believers should be now, and have been so long, left in error on such a fundamental doctrine as this?" Even so intelligent a man as Dr. Huntington seems to have been greatly influenced by this argument in becoming a Trinitarian.

The same argument has carried many Protestants into the Catholic Church. And, no doubt, there is a truth in the argument -- a truth, indeed, which is implied all through the present work -- that doctrines thus held by great multitudes during long periods cannot be wholly false. But it by no means proves them to be wholly true. Otherwise, truth would change as the majorities change. In one century the Arians would have been true. Moreover, most of those who adhere to a doctrine have not examined it, and do not have any defined opinion concerning it. They accept it, as it is taught them, without reflection. And again, most truths are, at first, in a minority of one.

Christianity, in the first century, was in a very small minority. Protestantism, in the time of Luther, was all in the brain and heart of one man. To assume, therefore, that Orthodoxy, or the true belief, is that of the majority, is to forbid all progress, to denounce all new truth, and to resist the revelation and inspiration of God, until it has conquered for itself the support of the majority of mankind.

According to this principle, as Christianity is still a minority as compared with paganism, we ought all to become followers of Boodh. Such a view cannot bear a moment's serious examination. Every prophet, sage, martyr, and heroic champion of truth has spent his life and won the admiration and grateful love of the world by opposing the majority in behalf of some neglected or unpopular truth.

2003 American Unitarian Conference