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The Previous Question

Between Mr. Andrews Norton and His Alumni 

Moved and Handled, in a Letter to All Those Gentlemen

Theodore Parker

After observing the debate between Andrews Norton and George Ripley over Norton's July 1839 discourse, "The Latest Form of Infidelity", Parker saw a need for "a higher word to be said on this subject." In April 1840, he published this pamphlet under the pseudonym "Levi Blodgett." It is generally considered one of the clearest short statements of the Transcendentalist position.  



If the subjects you are debating concerned simply the two respectable persons who alone, as yet, have taken part in the discussion, the public would not have listened to their words, nor should I have troubled your wisdom with this letter. But the matter before you is one of wide and deep concernment, which affects the whole community. You therefore, I doubt not, will pardon a plain man for addressing a few words to your respectful consideration. The humble style and perhaps uncouth phraseology of my letter, I trust, you will candidly excuse when I assure you that "ower much o' my life has been spent at the plough, and ower little at the college or the schule." I am but an obscure man; my name, I think, is strange to your ears. But I have interests at issue which depend on the question you are debating.


Our age, Gentlemen, as Mr. Norton so acutely remarks, is one of movement and transition. Great questions, which the world had previously passed upon and settled, come up to receive a new solution. "Terrible questions," as someone says, "are raised by human Reason," and matters taken for granted hitherto, or decided by authority that is merely personal, now solicit re-judgment, by which, in some cases, it seems likely that former decisions may be set aside. I perceive by the Pamphlets of Mr. Norton and his Alumnus, that several questions are now before you, which these two gentlemen are discussing in a manner scholar-like, in some measure, and able no doubt, but not in the most scientific manner, as I look at the thing. But this is the fault of the circumstances which led to the discussion, and is by no means a reproach to either party, especially if we consider how little scientific discussion on theological and religious subjects has hitherto taken place in this country. But I can make no pretensions to discuss scientifically such lofty matters; I wish only to offer a few thoughts in my own homely way.


If I understand the Pamphlets of Mr. Norton and his Alumnus, there are now two subjects before you, which have grown incidentally out of the discussion on the latest form of Infidelity.


I. There is the great vital question: Do men believe in Christianity solely on the ground of miracles? I say solely, for unless miracles are held to be the sole ground of accepting it, the question is only one of the more or less, and therefore is of little theological importance, since it concerns individual experience alone, and is not to be settled by theological science, but by the personal biography of each Christian. To decide upon the sole evidence of the Christian Religion, Christianity, as it is conceived of in the mind, must be subjected to a rigid analysis, whereby its truths shall be separated from the evidence on which those truths are accepted. This evidence must then itself be analyzed into its essential and accidental constituent parts; and, if I understand the matter, one party says by the test of his philosophy and experience the ultimate result of the last analysis will be miracles, while the other separates miracles as something adventitious, and regards them as foreign substances, by no means a necessary ingredient of that evidence, and still less the very essence of it. The truth itself is its own evidence, the Alumnus would say, and God's truth cannot be made more obligatory or effective by any miracles; still less does it derive its sanction from them.


II. The next is a literary question, which "parteth itself into four heads" that relate respectively to the theological character of Spinoza, Schleiermacher, and De Wette, and some errors, supposed or real, about translating. The last is a pedagogical question to be passed upon by linguists and might well enough, I reckon, be postponed indefinitely, or laid before a bench of schoolmasters for decision. It seems a pity that our Salmasius and Milton should quarrel even amicably about parts of speech. The historical and literary question respecting the distinguished scholars above named is one which does not much concern the church or the community, wherein Mr. Norton says "there is no controlling power of intellect" which alone can settle that question. It is a pity these men should attract the discussion, out of its proper channel, to themselves. If they were respectively atheists, disbelievers in the personality of God and the miracles of the New Testament, they are certainly not the only atheists and disbelievers, and perhaps are not the worst. I take it few Christians would solicit a comparison with these three men; I do not mean in respect to sharp-sightedness or insight into matters of philosophy and theology, but in respect to a Christian life. Now if their lives were the natural result of their principles and sentiments, as they must have been, if a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit, I would say God send us more such men, and may their influence extend wide and deep. But perhaps we are misinformed as to the character of these men, though it is hardly a common vice to exaggerate the virtues of men we do not agree with. But why should this literary question be discussed before the public are ready for it? The works of these gentlemen are but little known among us. I take it for granted that one party in this debate had never read the chief works of Spinoza before this controversy began; and the other thinks not ten persons in the neighborhood had read them. The works of the two other scholars are but little read in this country, as the booksellers tell me. Even the language is not much known, for I take it they are written in German and have not been translated, except a few fragments published in Reviews. Now books cannot do much harm unless they are read. I should think, therefore, Gentlemen, that it would be as well to drop this subject also, until other matters more pressing shall first be dispatched.


Gentlemen, I will now venture to recall your attention to the first subject, the sole evidence of christianity, the only subject of real moment. But since this matter is embarrassed with difficulties not easily removed, I will put forth a few thoughts on the previous question, which I think must be decided before we touch the evidence of Christianity. This previous question is as follows: How do men come to have any religion, or, in other words, on what evidence do they receive the plainest religious truths? Gentlemen, we must settle the genus before we decide upon the species. The evidence for religious truths in general, I take it, cannot be different in kind from the evidence for the special religious truths of Christianity. For as all religions contain some truths—on which alone they rest—that are identical with some truths in Christianity, and therefore not hostile to that religion (for one truth can never be hostile to another, inasmuch as God's kingdom is not divided against itself), and since religious belief and conviction are substantially the same thing in all minds, Heathen or Christian, so it follows incontestably that there must be the same kind of evidence to induce belief and conviction in both cases, as men's minds and hearts are at bottom the same. I do not see how there can be two kinds of evidence anymore than two kinds of right; but you, Gentlemen, are learned and can settle difficulties that puzzle simple folks. However, there may be different quantities of evidence in the two cases, as the quantity of truth may differ in two religions, or the quantity of religious belief and conviction in two individuals of the same or of different religions.


Now on what evidence do men admit the primary and essential truths of all religions? Among these primary truths, I take it, are a belief in the existence of god, and a sense of dependence on him. I call these primary and essential truths, because without them I cannot conceive any religion possible. I reckon that man is by nature a religious being; i.e., that he was made to be religious, as much as an ox was made to eat grass. The germs of religion, then, both the germs of religious principle and religious sentiment, must be born in man, or innate, as our preacher says. The existence of God is a fact given in our nature; it is not something discovered by a process of reasoning, by a long series of deductions from facts, nor yet is it the last generalization from phenomena observed in the universe of mind or matter. But it is a truth fundamental in our nature, given outright by God, a truth which comes to light as soon as self-consciousness begins. Still further, I take a sense of dependence on God to be a natural and essential sentiment of the soul, as much as feeling, seeing, and hearing are natural sensations of the body. Here, then, are the religious instincts which lead man to God and religion, just as naturally as the intellectual instincts lead him to truth, and animal instincts to his food. Here, then, is a correspondence between the nature of man and the nature of the whole universe wherewith one becomes acquainted. As there is light for the eye, sound for the ear, food for the palate, friends for the affections, beauty for the imagination, truth for the reason, duty for conscience, so there is God for the religious sentiment, or sense of dependence on Him. Now all these presuppose one another, as a want essential to the structure of man's mind or body presupposes something to satisfy it. And as the sensation of hunger presupposes food to satisfy it, so the sense of dependence on God presupposes his existence and character, though from this sense, taken in its philosophical nakedness, the unity of God could not, perhaps, be inferred, and certainly the personality or impersonality of God would in no wise follow.


Now I shall attempt to prove the existence of a religious nature, and also the existence of these two primary and essential truths of religion in man.


1. Negatively, by an argument fetched for the logical absurdity involved in the opposite doctrine that man has not a religious nature, or has not the primary truths of religion innate in him. I take it for granted on all hands that religion is needed for the harmonious growth and welfare of man, that without it this life would be, as somebody says, "poor, and brutish, and nasty, and short," that without God and religion man's better nature, his higher reason and spiritual powers, would be what the eye would become without light, the ear without sound, and the affection without friends. Now it is absurd to suppose God should create man thus dependent on God and on religion, and not give him power in himself to become perfectly assured in his own heart of the existence of God and his sustaining power on which we may depend. It is no more absurd and revolting to suppose that in some other part of the universe he has created an order of beings with a man's appetite for food, but with no powers of procuring that food. All animals are perfectly suited by their natures, to the sphere they move in, and it is absurd, and even impious, to suppose man is an exception to this law, and that while instincts supply his perishing body, there are no similar but higher instincts to supply his undying soul.


2. The existence of these truths and this religious nature may be shown philosophically by an analysis of the powers of the soul. You find the belief in God as an indestructible element of the human soul. You come back to this fact as you examine and analyze any faculty of our nature. Take the tendency to seek for a cause in the effect; it leads straight to the supreme or absolute Cause, a knowledge of which is presupposed as the foundation of all finite causes. Take the sense of the Beautiful; you come to the idea and archetype of infinite Loveliness, the altogether-Beautiful. Take the moral emotions; you come immediately to the eternal Right as it speaks through Conscience. Take the affections; you return to him who is Love. Thus in these, and in all other departments of the soul (so to say), you come back to the primal Truth, the light of all our being, to God. And you see the truth of the statement, "In him we live and move and have our being" [Acts 17:28].


Analyze the religious feelings, hopes, and opinions as they now exist in you; separate whatever is not essential to the idea of religion, what is merely individual and peculiar to yourself or your sect, and you come back to a sense of dependence on God as the ultimate result of the last analysis. This you find given in the soul. Man feels that he is poor, and weak, and blind, and naked, and admits the truth, "without Thee we can do nothing, and are nothing." I do not say this sense of dependence would lead you to a personal God. It will not disclose to you the nature of God more than the eye discloses the nature of light, the ear that of sound, or the hand that of matter. A knowledge of the nature of God is not more essential to religion than a knowledge of the nature of light, sound, and matter is essential to seeing, hearing, or touching. The hand discovers to you something that resists its touch; this sense of dependence discovers to you something on which you must and may depend, but what in the one case resists, and in the other supports, neither the hand, nor this sense of dependence can, in any wise, discover to you.


3. The same thing may be proved experimentally by an argument fetched from history. You find no nation, civilized or savage, which does not admit the existence of God and the sense of dependence upon Him. This fact is so notorious that I shall present no proofs thereof to "learned clerks" like yourselves. It would not be necessary to prove it, even to simple folks like my own companions and neighbors. The only exceptions to this belief are professed atheistsbut this exception disturbs no one; it only confirms the rule—and men who grow up in perfect seclusion from all human beings. The latter, I will admit, give no indication of possessing the idea of God or the sense of dependence on Him. But any argument hostile to my position, derived from this source, is met by the statement that these germs are probably there, only they have never had those social influences which are the necessary occasions of awakening them and the germs of other, high faculties of the soul. The subsequent history of these wretched persons proves the truth of the statement. Such an argument is repelled by the fact that these men neither laugh nor speak articulate language, and yet no one contends, from that circumstance, that the tendency to laugh and speak is not innate in man, though dependent on certain conditions and occasions for its active development.


I am well aware, Gentlemen, that some of you will say in opposition to this argument that a miraculous revelation of the primary and essential truths of religion was made to man from without, and through the senses, by his Creator, at an early period of the world, which revelation has been propagated by tradition ever since. Now when historical evidence of the fact, antecedently so improbable, is laid before me, it will be soon enough to point out the fault which vitiates and destroys your whole argument, viz., that such a revelation from without could not be made to man and received by him, except on the supposition that these germs were innate. An outward revelation could only be the occasion of manifesting these germs, and not the cause of religion in man. It cannot be the creation of a new element in man, as it must be if these germs are not already in him—it could only be the awakening of an element that still slept.


Now the progress and development of religion in man, I take it, is after this wise: the religious instincts, which ally us to God—like the animal instincts, which connect us with matter—must needs display themselves in action, as the other higher faculties of man come into full life. The various objects of nature, and events of life, and intercourse of man with man, furnish an occasion for wakening all the faculties. In a rude society religion will have but a low development and assume a rude form. As the tribe or race improves, the manifestations of religion become more perfect. The form changes to suit the culture of the age. Of course, various forms of worship, or "systems of religion," will prevail, corresponding to the peculiarities of the race, its character, condition and culture.


Such being the origin of religion in man, it is advanced as other human interests are. At the head of all departments of human thought, or interest, stand individuals who are in some measure the concrete type of that interest. Thus for example, in Legislation there are Minos and Moses, Homer in Poetry, Phidias in Sculpture, and in later times Raphael, Mozart, Bacon, and Newton in their respective spheres. All the great interests of mankind are carried forward by distinguished individuals. In the humbler affairs of agriculture, war, and politics, these individuals are numerous, for many will enter a department which lies level to the wishes and abilities of the many. But in the higher regions of human thought, these guides and types are less numerous and of a nobler stature. This rule holds good in Poetry and Philosophy. Mankind has many leaders in war, and but few great creative artists and profound philosophers, because many can fight, and but few exercise the creative imagination, or think profoundly. Now as the religious interest is the very highest possible interest of man, he must expect fewer leaders and types in this than in any other department of human concern. There are an hundred warriors, who rule over the body by force, to one philosopher, who rules in the mind by thought, and perhaps an hundred such to one creative, original, religious teacher, who rules through the heart by his superior holiness and faith, by his clearer vision of divine things which comes of his more complete obedience to "the law of the Spirit of life."


Now these original religious teachers do not derive their authority or their truths from themselves. The higher we ascend in human interests, the less is there of personal, and the more of divine authority. The religious teachers confess they derive their truths from God, and come not of themselves. Now I take it all men have two direct channels of communication with God, viz., Conscience and the religious Sentiment, that is, the moral and religious powers of man, his two highest and most permanent faculties, which are not accidental, but essential and of course immortal. I call them channels of direct communication with God, because I can find nothing interposed between Conscience and God, or between Him and the religious Sentiment. We border closely upon God everywhere; here we touch and he interpenetrates us, if I may so speak. Conscience and the religious Sentiment, I reckon, are to the soul what the ear and the eye are to the body. One reveals the moral law, the other the Beauty of Holiness and excellency of Divine Things. We have besides numerous indirect ways of communicating with God; the Senses lead to Him through sensible things, the Understanding through effects, the Imagination through beautiful objects, and the Affections through friends. Here the communication is mediate, as in the other it is without mediators; these two streams of moral and religious Truth flow direct from God, the primitive fountain of all Rectitude and Holiness. Now in most men these two channels, to continue the figure, are obstructed by sensuality and sinfulness. Not one man in a myriad has his conscience so active as his eye. Few deem it trustworthy, like the ear, or the hand. Not one in a million perhaps has his religious Sentiment so active and efficient as the bodily senses. Consequently these men, though they may know much of the outer world, of things seen and handled, though they may understand their laws and use, and perhaps sometimes catch a glimpse of their meaning likewise, can know little of the vast world of moral and religious Truth, little of God. Their Deity is "a God, afar off" [Jer. 23:23], whose very existence is a matter of reasoning and inference, of which they can never be quite certain. Their sense of duty is weak; their consciousness of God is feeble. Their confidence in duty and religion, therefore, on common occasions cannot be relied on; yet by a beautiful characteristic of our nature, in times of peril, this degraded religious Sentiment will sometimes arise, assert its right and support the man who has so long been false thereto.


Now as these guides of mankind, in Poetry, War, Philosophy, Music or the Arts, were men highly gifted by God with powers for their several callings, which powers they improved by use and sharpened by intense love of their vocation—so in religious interests, the guides of our race are men highly gifted by God at the first, who obey the fundamental law of their nature, and not only have indirect communication with God through natural objects, but immediate connection through these two channels, which they have never closed up by their sensuality and sin. These men move religion forward and upwards, as humbler geniuses promote and elevate humbler interests. These men create new religions and make religious epochs. They are enlightened directly from God, for the religious sentiment and conscience, "his greater and lesser light," shine straight into them. It is no figure of speech to say these men are inspired. They speak from this divine inspiration to the souls of men, and souls obey, at first slowly and reluctant, at last with servile homage and prostrate adoration. There is so much divine in them—viewed from the stand of the world—that it is said they cannot be men, so they are confounded with Divinity itself. Hence these men are deemed gods, and so become objects of worship. Their influence on the world is immense, far greater than that of chieftains or sages. They turn a deep, wide furrow through the stubborn soil of human selfishness and sin, and wholesome grains, and heavenly flowers, and living groves mark where their name has passed. You find such men at the beginning of each religious epoch. But though inspired, their inspiration is no more strange and out of the way than that of the Poet or the Painter, the Philosopher, or the Artist; it is only higher, and greater in degree, and more intense in its action. Yet though possessed of a greater measure of inspiration than other great souls like them, they are not perfectly above all that is national, local, temporary, or even personal to themselves. Religious truth is imparted to men gradually as they are able to bear it. Absolute truth and absolute religion are not for men who are subject to the various peculiarities of their nation, place and age, and to their own idiosyncrasies. Now as these latter perpetually change, the old form of religion, unable to change with them, gradually becomes obsolete. A new teacher of religion arises, starts from a higher stand and, separating the peculiarities of the old form which adapted it to its age, climate and nation, constructs a new form suitable to the altered condition of mankind, which shall, for its season, carry forward the good work, until "in the fullness of time" [Gal. 4:4], it gives place to somewhat higher and better.


Now mankind obeys these teachers because it sees and feels the truth they bring, and the superiority of their gifts, for these men say what others would gladly say, but cannot. The divinity of an inspired and original religious teacher is seen and appreciated as men see and appreciate the superior talents of Alexander or Hannibal. It required no miracle to convince the centurion or the common soldier that Caesar was a greater man than himself and possessed more martial skill. It required no miracle to teach the warblers of Ionia or Thebes that Homer or Pindar sang sweeter than they. Now as in these cases, men judge in their own minds of the poetic power and military prowess of Homer and Caesar, requiring no foreign proof thereof, nor dreaming of any test but the works of those men; so in the case of a religious teacher, men listen to Zoroaster, or Buddha, or Fo, feeling the superiority of these men, and believing the truth which is offered, as a part of their birthright too long kept from them.


But there is still a further consideration to be attended to. It may be said "these religious teachers pretended to work miracles." I would not deny that they did work miracles. If a man is obedient to the law of his mind, conscience and heart, since his intellect, character and affections are in harmony with the laws of God, I take it he can do works that are impossible to others who have not been so faithful, and consequently are not "one with God" as he is; and this is all that is meant by a miracle. But while this must be admitted, both as a logical conclusion and a historical fact—for without it we cannot account for the widespread belief in such miracles that do not spring out of dreams or lies, which themselves would require explanation likewise—I must confess myself unable to determine the kind or the number of miraculous acts performed by any one of these religious teachers. The miraculous power of Zoroaster and Elijah has doubtless been exaggerated, for men whose senses are more active than their souls find it more easy to cite a visible and monstrous fact as evidence of a man's superiority than trust to the less tangible fact of his superior character, more celestial sentiments and thoughts. Hence legends (or mythiI think the learned called them), relating the acts of a religious teacher, increase in number, and marvelousness, in proportion to the sensuality of the people where they originate, or in proportion to their ignorance of the facts of the case. The histories of Zoroaster offer a good illustration of this statement, which is proved true also by the difference between the canonical gospels and apocryphal writings, which latter originated in a later age and among a people more ignorant of the facts of Christ's life. Now the possession of this miraculous power, when it can be proved, as I look at the thing, is only a sign (which may be uncertain) of the superior genius of a religious teacher, or a sign that he will utter the truth, and never a proof thereof. Consequently, it offers no more valid evidence of the excellence of a religion than it would offer for the excellence of a poem or philosophy.


Religion—thus caused by the innate germs thereof in the soul, thus occasioned by the outer world, thus promoted by inspired men—when active and powerful in the community, affects the various faculties of the soul. It possesses the understanding and forms a creed, the fancy and creates a legendary tale, the moral sense and consciousness of sin and produces rites. It affects the heart and forms a symbol.


Now if such is the origin and growth of religion in general, we may perhaps apply these results to the special case of Christianity. Gentlemen, Christianity is one religion among several others. One species of a numerous class. It must therefore agree in some features with all other religions with the grossest worship of nature, and the most refined deism; otherwise it might be Christianity, but could not be religion, for I hold it to be granted that there can be but one kind of religion, though it may exist in various degrees of purity and intensity, and under the most various forms. Thus there is but one kind of water, though it may be more or less pure as it is less or more combined with foreign matter, and in different places, may exist in various quantities and in various forms, as frozen to ice, or sublimated to an invisible vapor. Now I reckon true Christianity to be the highest form of religion. The Christianity of the church is, gentlemen—you know better than I what the Christianity of the church is—what is the average morality and religion of the community, and therefore of the church, which only subsists by representing and slightly idealizing that average morality and religion. But the Christianity of Christ is the purest, the most intense, and perfect religion ever realized on earth. I say realized for it was realized in its archetype and founder, though perhaps never since then. I will not say it is absolute religion—and therefore that Christ is the ultimate incarnation of God, for I cannot measure the counsels of the Infinite. I have not "firm footing in the clouds," as some pretend to have. But for myself, I can conceive of no higher religion than Christianity, as I understand it. I do not mean the Christianity of Calvin or Luther, of the Unitarians or the Quakers, of Paul, James or Peter or John, all of which are obviously one-sided and in part false—but the Christianity of Jesus. I can conceive of no man who shall more fully represent the moral and religious side of our nature, none who shall receive more fully direct religious and moral inspiration from God, and therefore no more perfect moral and religious incarnation of God, than Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore I can assent to Paul's statement, "In him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead" [Col. 2:9], supposing that Paul did not mean to say Jesus represented any but the moral and religious side of our nature. Homer is a type of poetry, Socrates of thought, and in their several departments they surpass Jesus, who was neither a poet nor a philosopher. God creates the "perfect man" fractionally, and we can only construct the pure ideal of man, historically, by selecting the essential attributes from many celestial souls. It was from five hundred fair maidens that Phidias sought absolute loveliness and formed his eclectic statue of ideal beauty. But even if some man should be created in the full measure of perfect humanity—and should unite the poetic, philosophic, artistic, political and religious archetypes in himself, he would, it is true, be a more perfect incarnation of God than Jesus was, for the sum-total of his being would be greater and equally pure, but yet he would not be a more perfect manifestation or incarnation of ideal moral and religious excellence than Jesus. Of course he could not reveal a more perfect religion, as I take it. But I would not insist on this conclusion, where it is so easy to make mistakes.


I am content, in the rest of this letter, to take it for granted that Christianity is absolute religion, perfect religion, the sentiment and the principle, the harmony of morality and religion, united and made life. It is religion not limited by creeds, legends, rites or symbols, for though there is in the Christianity of the church somewhat liturgical, legendary, ritual and symbolic, yet it is not essential to Christianity itself, and is to spiritual men like you, no doubt, a help and not an encumbrance.


Now since all religion in general starts from the germs and primary essential truths of religion, which are innate with man, since it is promoted by religious geniuses who, inspired by God, appeal to these innate germs and truths in man, since all religions are fundamentally the same and only specific variations of one and the same genus, and since, therefore, Christianity is one religion among many, though it is the highest, and even a perfect religion—it follows incontestably that Christianity also must start from these same points. Accordingly we find history verifying philosophy, for Christ always assumes these great facts, viz., the existence of God and man's sense of dependence upon him, as facts given in man's nature. He attempted to excite in man a more living consciousness of these truths and to give them a permanent influence on the whole character and life. His words were attended to, just as the words of Homer or Socrates, and the works of Phidias or Mozart were attended to. But admiration for his character, and the influence of his doctrines, was immeasurably greater than in their case, because he stood in the very highest department of human interest and spoke of matters more concerning than poetry or philosophy, sculpture or music. Now, if he assumed as already self-evident and undoubted these two primary and essential truths of religion, which had likewise been assumed by all his predecessors—and if no miracle was needed to attest and give authority to his doctrines respecting those very foundations and essentials of religion, no man can consistently demand a miracle as a proof that Christ spoke the truth when he taught doctrines of infinitely less importance, which were themselves unavoidable conclusions from these two admitted truths. Gentlemen, I am told by my minister, who is an argumentative man, it is a maxim in logic that what is true of the genus is true also of the species. If, therefore, the two fundamentals of religion, which in themselves involve all necessary subordinate truths thereof, be assumed by Christ as self-evident, already acknowledged, and therefore at no time, and least of all at that time, requiring a miracle to substantiate them, I see not how it can be maintained that a miracle was needed to establish inferior truths that necessarily followed from them. It would be absurd to suppose a miracle needed on the part of Socrates to convince men that he uttered the truth, since no miracle could be a direct proof of that fact, and still more absurd would it be, while the most sublime doctrines, as soon as he affirmed them, were admitted as self-evident, to demand miraculous proofs for the truth of the legitimate and necessary deductions therefrom.


Still further, Gentlemen, Christianity is either the perfection of a religion whose germs and first truths are innate in the soul, or it is the perfection of a religion whose germs and first truths are not innate in the soul. If we take the latter alternative, I admit that, following the common opinion, miracles would be necessary to establish the divine authority of the mediator of this religion, for devout men measuring the new doctrines by reason, conscience, and the religious sentiment—the only standard within their reach—and finding this doctrine contrary and repugnant thereto, must, of necessity, repel this religion, because it was unnatural, unsatisfactory, and useless to them. To open my meaning a little more fully by an illustration—should a man present to my eyes a figure as the Ideal of Beauty, if that figure revolted my taste, were repugnant to my sense of harmony in outline, and symmetry of parts, I should say it could not be so; but if he had satisfactory credentials to convince me that he came direct from God, and to prove that this figure was indeed the Ideal of Beauty to the archangels who had an aesthetic constitution more perfect than that of men, and therefore understood beauty better than I could do, I should admit the fact, but must, in that case, reject his Ideal Beauty, because it was the Ideal of Deformity, relatively, to my sense, inasmuch as it was repugnant to the first principles of human taste. Now if a religion whose germs and first truths are not innate in man should be presented by a mediator furnished with credentials of his divine office that are satisfactory to all men, the religion must yet be rejected. The religion must be made for man's religious nature, as much as the shoe must be made for the foot. God has laid the foundation of religion in man, and the religion built up in man must correspond to that foundation, otherwise it can be of no more use to him than St. Anthony's sermon was to the fishes. There was nothing in the fishes to receive the doctrine. But if we take the other alternative, and admit that Christianity is the perfection of a religion whose germs and first truths are innate in man, and confessed to be so by him who brings and those who accept the religion, I see no need, or even any use of miracles, to prove the authority of this mediator. To illustrate as before: if someone brings me an image, as the Ideal of Beauty, and that image correspond to my idea of the Beautiful, though it rise never so much above it, I ask no external fact to convince me of the beauty of the image, or the authority of him who brings it. I have all the evidence of its excellent beauty that I need or wish for, all that is possible. If Raphael had wrought miracles, his works would have had no more value than now, for their value depends on no foreign authority, but on their corresponding to ideal excellence.


But besides, miracles in either alternative are exceedingly weak arguments; yet if they have that constraining influence some of you often claim for them, their authenticating power is unlimited and must, in all cases, constrain an eyewitness to believe the miracle-worker is a divine messenger, and all his words are truth. Now I will put a case: suppose a miracle-worker should assure a large audience in Boston that it was a moral duty to lie, steal, and kill, and, at their request, as proof of his divinity and the truth of his doctrines, should feed that large audience to satiety with a single loaf of bread; would they believe the new doctrine in opposition to conscience, reason, and religion? If they did thus believe, the fact would only prove that their senses were more active than their souls; for, as things visible are judged of by the eye, things to be tasted by the palate, and things audible by the ear, just so what is addressed to the spiritual powers must be proved and accepted by the spiritual powers, and not by the senses. To make my eye, ear, or palate, evidence of the divinity of a man, or the truth of a doctrine, is like setting the eye to judge sounds, and the ear colors. In the case supposed, if men believe, their assent would be forced, not voluntary, and therefore of no value; such a mediator must belittle his auditors before he can bless them. But if we take the accounts of the Bible, the most stupendous miracles of Moses and Jesus had no influence to constrain belief, for their witnesses did not seem to know what a miracle could prove.


Gentlemen, I believe that Jesus, like other religious teachers, wrought miracles. I should come to this conclusion even if the Evangelists did not claim them for him; nay, I should admit that his miracles would be more numerous and extraordinary, more benevolent in character and motive, than the miracles of his predecessors. This would naturally follow if his power and obedience were more perfect than theirs. But I see not how a miracle proves a doctrine, and I even conjecture we do not value him for the miracles, but the miracles for him. I take it no one would think much of his common miracles if they were not wrought by the God-man. The divine character of Christ gives value to the miracles, which cannot give divinity to Christ, or even prove it is there, as I take it; for many Christians believed Apollonius of Tyana wrought miracles, but they placed no value on them, because they had little respect for Apollonius of Tyana himself. The miracles of the Greek mythology seem to have had no influence on the mind of the nation, because no great life lay at the bottom of these miracles. The same may be said of the miracles of the Middle Ages, and even of more modern times. We say these were not real miracles, and the saying is perhaps true, for the most part, but to such as believed them, they were just as good as true; yet their effect was trifling, because there was no great soul which worked these miracles. It may be said these differ in character from the Christian miracles, and the saying has its side of truth, if only the canonical miracles are included; but it is not true if the other miracles of Christian tradition are taken into the account, for here malicious miracles are sometimes ascribed to him. But men found comfort in these stories only because they believed in the divinity of the character which lay at the bottom of the Christian movement.


Now, Gentlemen, if there are no antecedent objections to Christ's possessing miraculous powers, there are some historical difficulties in the way of establishing all the miracles which he wrought. I allow there is a vein of the miraculous pervading human history; now and then it comes to light, perhaps even nowadays. Without this admission, I cannot account for the almost universal belief that miracles have been wrought, and especially by religious teachers. But it is a difficult matter to establish a particular miracle. A miracle, I suppose, has two limits; the one is the utmost verge of unassisted human ability, the other is the divine creative power, which cannot, I reckon, be imparted to finite beings who have free will. Now both of these limits are vague, exceedingly shadowy; it is perfectly impossible for me to fix them in speculation or practice. But since I can think of no more convenient limits, I will admit that all is a miracle which lies between these two extremes. But, as observations must not be made on the stars when pretty close to the horizon, I will be careful not to notice such acts as approach near the common powers of benevolent and cultivated men. A miracle, then, is a voluntary act, lying anywhere between these bounds, and if there is any meaning in the three words by which my old minister tells me miracles are called in the New Testament, they are fitted to excite wonder, to display unusual power, and are a sign of the character of the miracle-worker. Yet I take it they are not a proof the character is divine, for the serpent wrought the first miracle on record in the Bible, and Peter's shadow the last, I believe, not to mention Balaam's ass, the magicians in Egypt, and the exorcists in Christ's time, who had miraculous powers as Dr. Barnes thinks.


Gentlemen, I reckon it would  be difficult to prove in a court of justice the reality of any  one of the miracles ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels, with the exception of his resurrection, a miracle which he seems to have had no hand in bringing about, a miracle which was the corner stone of Paul's preaching, and of the Christian church. This, then, is not Christ's miracle, but God's act. There are several difficulties which hinder you from proving the reality of particular miracles.


1. There is the tendency to the marvelous in all ancient nations, especially among the Jews, before and after the time of Christ. They never separated the true from the false, the common from the preternatural, I think; they did it least of all in the history of sacred persons.


2. The Epistles of the New Testament, though older than the Gospels, as you tell us, only mention the miracles in a general way, and but very rarely, only two or three times, at the outside, as I read it. They mention no particular miracles. If Paul had known Lazarus and two others were raised from the dead, would he have called Christ the "first fruits of them that slept?" He would rather, I reckon, mention these cases to prove a resurrection, and it is quite certain, if he had thought a belief in miracles so necessary and essential, he would have taken pains to spread the knowledge thereof in his Epistles, and would have charged Timothy to preach the miracles, as well as the crucifixion and resurrection. I take it a church might be Christian which believed only a single one of his ecclesiastical epistles, wherein no miracle, save the resurrection, is insisted on or mentioned.


3. The authority of the Evangelists is not quite satisfactory—not that they designed to tell what was false, for their sincerity is plain as the sun at noonday—but they might be mistaken. Their inspiration did not free them from the notions of the age and nation, from wrong judgments, or their own temperaments. Gentlemen, one of your number, a scholar universally esteemed, whose talents and learning are respected, I doubt not, by his opponent in this controversy, has rejected several passages of the Gospels as neither genuine nor authentic and thinks, further, that some other passages are not strictly historical. I have read in some religious papers that a German critic—Dr. Strauss I think—has explained a great deal of the New Testament into Mythi, as the papers called them, which had no foundation in fact. I do not like that Hebrew word, but thought long ago there was something legendary and romantic in the stories of Christ's birth, early life, and ascension to heaven. You would all admit this to one another, I reckon. Now these considerations would in some measure weaken the evidence of the Evangelists as to any one particular case of miracles, but would not detract from their moral character, or diminish the probability that Jesus worked miracles, though we cannot tell what they were. In saying this, I do not express any doubt on my own part of the general accuracy of their history of Christ, at least during his ministry.


Now, since these things are so, it seems to me much easier, more natural, and above all more true, to ground Christianity on the truth of its doctrines, and its sufficiency to satisfy all the moral and religious wants of man in the highest conceivable state, than to rest it on miracles, which, at best, could only be a sign, and not a proof of its excellence, and which, beside, do themselves require much more evidence to convince man of their truth than Christianity requires without them. To me, the spiritual elevation of Jesus is a more convincing proof of his divinity than the story of his miraculous transfiguration; and the words which he uttered, and the life which he lived, are more satisfactory evidence of his divine authority than all his miracles, from the transformation of water into wine to the resurrection of Lazarus. I take him to be the most perfect religious incarnation of God, without putting his birth on the same level with that of Hercules. I see the story of his supernatural conception as a picture of the belief in the early Christian church and find the divine character in the general instructions and heavenly life of Christ. I need no miracle to convince me that the sun shines, and just as little do I need a miracle to convince me of the divinity of Jesus and his doctrines, to which a miracle, as I look at it, can add just nothing. Even the miracle of the resurrection does not prove the immortality of the soul.


Gentlemen, I would say a word to that portion of your number who rest Christianity solely, or chiefly, on the miracles. I would earnestly deprecate your theology. Happily, with the unlearned, like myself, this miracle-question is one of theology, and not of religion, which latter may, and does, exist under the most imperfect and vicious theology. But do you wish that we should rest our theology and religion—for you make it a religious question—on ground so insecure! on a basis which every scoffer may shake, if he cannot shake down—a basis which you acknowledge to be insecure when other religions claim to rest on it, and one from which your own teachers are continually separating fragments? To the mass of Christians, who are taught to repose their faith on miracles, those of the Old are as good as those of the New Testament, both of which are insecure. One of your number, a man not to be named without respect for his talents, his learning, and, above all, for his conscientious piety, a man whom it delights me to praise, though from afar—at one blow, of his Academic Lectures, fells to the ground all the most stupendous miracles of the Old Testament; and another, a party in this contest, has long ago removed several miracles from the text of the New Testament and thrown discredit—unconsciously—upon the rest. If the groundwork of Christianity is thus to be left at the mercy of scoffers, or scholars and critics, who decide by principles that are often arbitrary, and must be uncertain, what are we the unlearned, who have little time for investigating such matters—and to whom Latin schools and colleges have not opened their hospitable doors—what are we to do? You tell us that we must not fall back on the germs and first truths of religion in the soul. You tell us that Christ "established a relation between man and God, that could not otherwise exist," and the only proof that this relation is real, and that he had authority to establish it, is found in the particular miracles he wrought, which miracles cannot, at this day, be proved real. Thus you repel us from the belief that the relation between God and man is founded in the nature of things and was established at our creation, and that the authority of Christianity is not personal with Jesus, but rests on the eternal nature of Truth. Thus you make us rest our moral and religious faith, for time and eternity, on evidence too weak to be trusted in a trifling case that comes before a common court of justice. You make our religion depend entirely on something outside, on strange events which happened, it is said, two thousand years ago, of which we can never be certain, and on which yourselves often doubt, at least of the more and less. Gentlemen we cannot be critics, but we would be Christians. If you strike away a part of the Bible, and deny—what philosophy must deny—the perfect literal truth of the first chapter of Genesis, or the book of Jonah, or any part which claims to be literally true, and is not literally true, for us you have destroyed all value in miracles as evidence—exclusive and irrefragable—for the truth of Christianity. Gentlemen, with us, Christianity is not a thing of speculation, but a matter of life, and I beseech you, in behalf of numbers of my fellows, pious and unlearned as myself, to do one of two things, either to prove that the miraculous stories in the Bible are perfectly true, that is, that there is nothing fictitious or legendary from Genesis to Revelation, which yet professes to be historical, and that the authors of the Bible were never mistaken as to facts or judgments thereon, or leave us to ground our belief in Christianity on its truth—which is obvious to every spiritual eye that is open—on its fitness to satisfy our wants, on its power to regenerate and restore degraded and fallen man, on our faith in Christ, which depends not on his birth or ascension, on his miraculous powers of healing, creating, or transforming, but on his words of truth and holiness, on his divine life, on the undisputed fact that he was one with god. Until you do one of these things, we shall mourn in our hearts and repeat the old petition: "God save Christianity from its friends; its enemies we care not for." You may give us your miracles and tell us they are sufficient witness, but hungering and thirsting, we shall look unto Christ and say, "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou only hast the words of everlasting life," and we believe on Thee, for thy words and life proclaim themselves divine, and these no man can take from us.


I remain, Gentlemen,

with deep respect,

your affectionate servant,



Read a Review of this pamphlet by William Ware in the Christian Examiner.



© 2005 American Unitarian Conference