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The System of Exclusion and Denunciation in Religion Considered

William Ellery Channing, 1815

NOTHING is plainer, than that the leaders of the party called "Orthodox," have adopted and mean to enforce a system of exclusion, in regard to Liberal Christians. They spare no pains to infect the minds of their too easy followers with the persuasion, that they ought to refuse communion with their Unitarian brethren, and to deny them the name, character, and privileges of Christians.

On this system, I shall now offer several observations. I begin with an important suggestion. I beg that it may be distinctly understood, that the zeal of Liberal Christians on this point, has no other object than the peace and prosperity of the church of Christ. We are pleading, not our own cause, but the cause of our Master.

The denial of our Christian character, by fallible and imperfect men, gives us no anxiety. Our relation to Jesus Christ is not to be dissolved by the breath of man. Our Christian rights do not depend on human passions. We have precisely the same power over our brethren which they have over us, and are equally authorized to sever them from the body of Christ.

Still more; if the possession of truth give superior weight to denunciation, we are persuaded that our opposers will be the severest sufferers, should we think fit to hurl back the sentence of exclusion and condemnation. But we have no disposition to usurp power over our brethren. We believe, that the spirit which is so studiously excited against ourselves, has done incalculable injury to the cause of Christ; and we pray God to deliver us from its power.

Why are the name, character, and rights of Christians, to be denied to Unitarians? Do they deny that Jesus is the Christ? Do they reject his word as the rule of their faith and practice? Do their lives discover indifference to his authority and example? No, these are not their offences. They are deficient in none of the qualifications of disciples, which were required in the primitive age.

Their offence is, that they read the Scriptures for themselves, and derive from them different opinions on certain points, from those which others have adopted. Mistake of judgment is their pretended crime, and this crime is laid to their charge by men who are as liable to mistake as themselves, and who seem to them to have fallen into some of the grossest errors.

A condemning sentence from such judges, carries with it no terror. Sorrow for its uncharitableness, and strong disapprobation of its arrogance, are the principal feelings which it inspires. It is truly astonishing, that Christians are not more impressed with the unbecoming spirit, the arrogant style, of those who deny the Christian character to professed and exemplary followers of Jesus Christ, because they differ in opinion on some of the most subtle and difficult subjects of theology. A stranger, at hearing the language of these denouncers, would conclude, without a doubt, that they were clothed with infallibility, and were appointed to sit in judgment on their brethren.

But for myself, I know not a shadow of a pretence for the language of superiority assumed by our adversaries. Are they exempted from the common frailty of our nature? Has God given them superior intelligence? Were they educated under circumstances more favorable to improvement, than those whom they condemn? Have they brought to the Scriptures more serious, anxious, and unwearied attention? Or do their lives express a deeper reverence for God and for his Son? No. They are fallible, imperfect men, possessing no higher means, and no stronger motives for studying the word of God, than their Unitarian brethren. And yet their language to them is virtually this: "We pronounce you to be in error, and in most dangerous error. We know that we are right, and that you are wrong, in regard to the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel. You are unworthy the Christian name, and unfit to sit with us at the table of Christ. We offer you the truth, and you reject it at the peril of your souls."

Such is the language of humble Christians to men who, in capacity and apparent piety, are not inferior to themselves. This language has spread from the leaders, through a considerable part of the community. Men in those walks of life which leave them without leisure or opportunities for improvement, are heard to decide on the most intricate points, and to pass sentence on men whose lives have been devoted to the study of the Scriptures!

The female, forgetting the tenderness of her sex, and the limited advantages which her education affords for a critical study of the Scriptures, inveighs with bitterness against the damnable errors of such men as Newton, Locke, Clarke, and Price! The young, too, forget the modesty which belongs to their age, and hurl condemnation on the head which has grown gray in the service of God and mankind. Need I ask, whether this spirit of denunciation for supposed error, becomes the humble and fallible disciples of Jesus Christ.

In vindication of this system of exclusion and denunciation, it is often urged, that the "honor of religion," the "purity of the church," and the "cause of truth," forbid those who hold the true Gospel, to maintain fellowship with those who support corrupt and injurious opinions. Without stopping to notice the modesty of those who claim an exclusive knowledge of the true Gospel, I would answer, that the "honor of religion " can never suffer by admitting to Christian fellowship men of irreproachable lives, whilst it has suffered most severely from that narrow and uncharitable spirit which has excluded such men for imagined errors.

I answer again, that the "cause of truth " can never suffer by admitting to Christian fellowship, men who honestly profess to make the Scriptures their rule of faith and practice, whilst it has suffered most severely by substituting for this standard, conformity to human creeds and formularies. It is truly wonderful, if excommunication for supposed error be the method of purifying the church, that the church has been so long and so woefully corrupted. Whatever may have been the deficiencies of Christians in other respects, they have certainly discovered no criminal reluctance in applying this instrument of purification. Could the thunders and lightnings of excommunication have corrected the atmosphere of the church, not one pestilential vapor would have loaded it for ages. The air of Paradise would not have been more pure, more refreshing.

But what does history tell us? It tells us, that the spirit of exclusion and denunciation has contributed more than all other causes to the corruption of the church, to the diffusion of error; and has rendered the records of the Christian community as black, as bloody, as revolting to humanity, as the records of empires founded on conquest and guilt

But it is said, Did not the Apostle denounce the erroneous, and pronounce a curse on the "abettors of another gospel?" This is the stronghold of the friends of denunciation. But let us never forget, that the Apostles were inspired men, capable of marking out with unerring certainty, those who substituted "another gospel" for the true. Show us their successors, and we will cheerfully obey them.

It is also important to recollect the character of those men, against whom the apostolic anathema was directed. They were men, who knew distinctly what the Apostles taught, and yet opposed it; and who endeavoured to sow division, and to gain followers, in the churches which the Apostles had planted. These men, resisting the known instructions of the authorized and inspired teachers of the Gospel, and discovering a factious, selfish, mercenary spirit, were justly excluded as unworthy the Christian name.

But what in common with these men, have the Christians whom it is the custom of the "Orthodox" to denounce? Do these oppose what they know to be the doctrine of Christ and his Apostles? Do they not revere Jesus and his inspired-messengers? Do they not dissent from their brethren, simply because they believe that their brethren dissent from their Lord?

Let us not forget, that the contest, at the present day, is not between the Apostles themselves and men who oppose their known instructions, but uninspired Christians, who equally receive the Apostles as authorized teachers of the Gospel, and who only differ in judgment as to the interpretation of their writings. How unjust, then, is it for any class of Christians to confound their opponents with the factious and unprincipled sectarians of the primitive age.

Mistake in judgment is the heaviest charge which one denomination has now a right to urge against another; and do we find that the Apostles ever denounced mistake as "awful and fatal hostility " to the Gospel; that they pronounced anathemas on men who wished to obey, but who misapprehended their doctrines? The Apostles well remembered, that none ever mistook more widely than themselves. They remembered, too, the lenity of their Lord towards their errors, and this lenity they cherished and labored to diffuse.

But it is asked, Have not Christians a right to bear "solemn testimony " against opinions which are "utterly subversive of the Gospel, and most dangerous to men's eternal interests"? To this I answer, that the opinions of men, who discover equal intelligence and piety with ourselves, are entitled to respectful consideration. If, after inquiry, they seem erroneous and injurious, we are authorized and bound, according to our ability, to expose, by fair and serious argument, their nature and tendency.

But I maintain, that we have no right as individuals, or in an associated capacity, to bear our "solemn testimony" against these opinions, by menacing with ruin the Christian who listens to them, or by branding them with the most terrifying epithets, for the purpose of preventing candid inquiry into their truth. This is the fashionable mode of "bearing testimony," and it is a weapon which will always be most successful in the hands of the proud, the positive, and overbearing, who are most impatient of contradiction, and have least regard to the rights of their brethren.

But whatever may be the right of Christians, as to bearing testimony against opinions which they deem injurious, I deny that they have any right to pass a condemning sentence, on account of these opinions, on the characters of men whose general deportment is conformed to the Gospel of Christ. Both Scripture and reason unite in teaching, that the best and only standard of character is the life; and he who overlooks the testimony of a Christian life, and grounds a sentence of condemnation on opinions, about which he, as well as his brother, may err, violates most flagrantly the duty of just and candid judgment, and opposes the peaceful and charitable spirit of the Gospel.

Jesus Christ says, "By their fruits shall ye know them." "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." "Ye are: my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you." "He that heareth and doeth these my sayings," i. e. the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount, "I will liken him to a man who built his house upon a rock." It would be easy to multiply similar passages. The whole Scriptures teach us, that he and he only is a Christian, whose life is governed by the precepts of the Gospel, and that by this standard alone, the profession of this religion should be tried.

We do not deny, that our brethren have a right to form a judgment as to our Christian character. But we insist that we have a right to be judged by the fairest, the most approved, and the most settled rules, by which character can be tried; and when these are overlooked, and the most uncertain standard is applied, we are injured; and an assault on character, which rests on this ground, deserves no better name than defamation and persecution.

I know that this suggestion of persecution, will be indignantly repelled by those who deal most largely in denunciation. But persecution is a wrong or injury inflicted for opinions; and surely assaults on character fall under this definition. Some persons seem to think, that persecution consists in pursuing error with fire and sword; and that therefore it has ceased to exist, except in distempered imaginations, because no class of Christians among us is armed with these terrible weapons. But no. The form is changed, but the spirit lives. Persecution has given up its halter and fagot, but it breathes venom from its lips, and secretly blasts what it cannot openly destroy.

For example, a Liberal minister, however circumspect in his walk, irreproachable in all his relations, no sooner avows his honest convictions on some of the most difficult subjects, than his name begins to be a by-word. A thousand suspicions are infused into his hearers; and it is insinuated, that he is a minister of Satan, in "the guise of an angel of light." At a little distance from his home, calumny assumes a bolder tone. He is pronounced an infidel, and it is gravely asked, whether he believes in a God. At a greater distance, his morals are assailed. He is a man of the world, "leading souls to hell," to gratify the most selfish passions. But notwithstanding all this, he must not say a word about persecution, for reports like these rack no limbs; they do not even injure a hair of his head; and how then is he persecuted?

Now for myself, I am as willing that my adversary-should take my purse or my life, as that he should rob me of my reputation, rob me of the affection of my friends, and of my means of doing good. "He who takes from me my good name," takes the best possession of which human power can deprive me. It is true, that a Christian's reputation is comparatively a light object; and so is his property, so is his life; all are light things to him, whose hope is full of immortality. But, of all worldly blessings, an honest reputation is to many of us the most precious; and he who robs us of it, is the most injurious of mankind, and among the worst of persecutors.

Let not the friends of denunciation attempt to escape this charge, by pleading their sense of duty, and their sincere desire to promote the cause of truth. St. Dominic was equally sincere, when he built the Inquisition; and I doubt not that many torturers of Christians, have fortified their reluctant minds, at the moment of applying the rack and the burning iron, by the sincere conviction, that the cause of truth required the sacrifice of its foes. I beg that these remarks may not be applied indiscriminately to the party called "Orthodox," among whom are multitudes whose humility and charity would revolt from making themselves the standards of Christian piety, and from assailing the Christian character of their brethren.

Many other considerations may be added to those which have been already urged, against the system of excluding from Christian fellowship men of upright lives, on account of their opinions. It necessarily generates perpetual discord in the church. Men differ in opinions as much as in features. No two minds are perfectly accordant. The shades of belief are infinitely diversified. Amidst this immense variety of sentiment, every man is right in his own eyes. Every man discovers errors in the creed of his brother. Every man is prone to magnify the importance of his own peculiarities, and to discover danger in the peculiarities of others. This is human nature. Every man is partial to his own opinions, because they are his own, and his self-will and pride are wounded by contradiction.

Now what must we expect, when beings so erring, so divided in sentiment, and so apt to be unjust to the views of others, assert the right of excluding one another from the Christian church on account. of imagined error? as the Scriptures confine this right to no individual and to no body of Christians, it belongs alike to all; and what must we expect, when Christians of all capacities and dispositions, the ignorant, prejudiced, and self-conceited, imagine it their duty to prescribe opinions to Christendom, and to open or to shut the door of the church according to the decision which their neighbours may form on some of the most perplexing points of theology?

This question, unhappily, has received answer upon answer in ecclesiastical history. We there see Christians denouncing and excommunicating one another for supposed error, until every denomination has been pronounced accursed by some portion of the Christian world; so that were the curses of men to prevail, not one human being would enter heaven. To me it appears, that to plead for the right of excluding men of blameless lives, on account of their opinions, is to sound the peal of perpetual and universal war.

Arm men with this power, and we shall have " nothing but thunder." Some persons are sufficiently simple to imagine, that if this "horrid Unitarianism " were once hunted down, and put quietly into its grave, the church would be at peace. But no: our present contests have their origin, not in the "enormities" of Unitarianism, but very much in the principles of human nature, in the love of power, in impatience of contradiction, in men's passion for imposing their own views upon others, in the same causes which render them anxious to make proselytes to all their opinions.

Were Unitarianism quietly interred, another and another hideous form of error would start up before the zealous guardians of the " purity of the church." The Arminian, from whom the pursuit has been diverted for a time by his more offending Unitarian brother, would soon be awakened from his dream of security, by the clamor of denunciation; and should the Arminian fall a prey, the Calvinists would then find time to look into the controversies among themselves, and almost every class would discover, with the eagle eye of their brethren at New York, that those who differ from them hold "another gospel," and ought to be "resisted and denounced."

Thus the wars of Christians will be perpetual. Never will there be peace, until Christians agree to differ, and agree to look for the evidences of Christian character in the temper and the life.

Another argument against this practice of denouncing the supposed errors of sincere professors of Christianity, is this. It exalts to supremacy in the church, men who have the least claim to influence. Humble, meek, and affectionate Christians are least disposed to make creeds for their brethren, and to denounce those who differ from them. On the contrary, the impetuous, proud, and enthusiastic, men who cannot or will not weigh the arguments of opponents, are always most positive, and most unsparing in denunciation. These take the lead in a system of exclusion. They have no false modesty, no false charity, to shackle their zeal in framing fundamentals for their brethren, and in punishing the obstinate in error.

The consequence is, that creeds are formed, which exclude from Christ's church some of his truest followers, which outrage reason as well as revelation, and which subsequent ages are obliged to mutilate and explain away, lest the whole religion be rejected by men of reflection.

Such has been the history of the church. It is strange that we do not learn wisdom from the past. What man, who feels his own fallibility, who sees the errors into which the positive and "orthodox" of former times have been betrayed, and who considers his own utter inability to decide on the degree of truth, which every mind, of every capacity, must receive in order to salvation, will not tremble at the responsibility of prescribing to his brethren, in his own words, the views they must maintain on the most perplexing subjects of religion? Humility will always leave this work to others.

Another important consideration is, that this system of excluding men of apparent sincerity, for their opinions, entirely subverts free inquiry into the Scriptures. When once a particular system is surrounded by this bulwark; when once its defenders have brought the majority to believe, that the rejection of it is a mark of depravity and perdition, what but the name of liberty is left to Christians? The obstacles to inquiry are as real, and may be as powerful, as in the neighbourhood of the inquisition. The multitude dare not think, and the thinking dare not speak. The right of private judgment may thus, in a Protestant country, be reduced to a nullity.

It is true, that men are sent to the Scriptures; but they are told before they go, that they will be driven from the church on earth and in heaven, unless they find in the Scriptures the doctrines which are embodied in the popular creed. They are told, indeed, to inquire for themselves; but they are also told at what points inquiry must arrive; and the sentence of exclusion hangs over them, if they happen to stray, with some of the best and wisest men, into forbidden paths. Now this "Protestant liberty " is, in one respect, more irritating than Papal bondage. It mocks as well as enslaves us. It talks to us courteously as friends and brethren, whilst it rivets our chains. It invites and even charges us to look with our own eyes,,but with the same breath warns us against seeing any thing which Orthodox eyes have not seen before us.

Is this a state of things favorable to serious inquiry into the truths of the Gospel? Yet, how long has the church been groaning under this cruel yoke! Another objection to this system of excluding professed disciples of Christ, on account of their opinions, is that it is inconsistent with the great principles of Congregationalism.

In churches, where the power is lodged in a few individuals, who are supposed to be the most learned men in the community, the work of marking out and excluding the erroneous, may seem less difficult. But among Congregationalists, the tribunal, before which the offender is to be brought, is the whole church, consisting partly of men in humble circumstances and of unimproved minds; partly of men engaged in active and pressing business; and partly of men of education, whose studies have been directed to law and medicine.

Now is this a tribunal, before which the most intricate points of theology are to be discussed, and serious inquirers are to answer for opinions, which they have perhaps examined more laboriously and faithfully than all their judges Would a church of humble men, conscious of their limited opportunities, consent to try, for these pretended crimes, professing Christians, as intelligent, as honest and as exemplary as themselves?

It is evident, that in the business of excluding men for opinions, a church can be little more than the tool of the minister or a few influential members; and our churches are, in general, too independent and too upright to take this part in so solemn a transaction. To correct their deficiencies, and to quicken their zeal on this point, we are now threatened with new tribunals, or consociations, whose office it will be to try ministers for their errors, to inspect the churches, and to advise and assist them in the extirpation of "heresy."

Whilst the laity are slumbering, the ancient and free constitution of our churches is silently undermined and is crumbling away. Since argument is insufficient to produce uniformity of opinion, recourse must be had to more powerful instruments of conviction; I mean, to ECCLESIASTICAL COURTS. And are this people indeed prepared to submit to this most degrading form of vassalage; a vassalage, which reaches and palsies the mind, and imposes on it the dreams and fictions of men, for the everlasting truth of God!

These remarks lead me to the last consideration which I shall urge against the proposed system of exclusion and separation. This system will shake to the foundation our religious institutions, and destroy many habits and connexions which have had the happiest influence on the religious character of this people.

In the first place, if Christian communion and all acknowledgments of Christian character are to be denied on the ground of difference of opinion, the annual "Convention of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts," that ancient bond of union, must be dissolved; and in its dissolution we shall lose the edifying, honorable, and rare example of ministers regularly assembling, not to exercise power and to fetter the conscience, but to reciprocate kind affection, and to unite in sending relief to the families of their deceased brethren. This event may gladden the heart of the sectarian; it will carry no joy to the widow and orphan.

In the next place, the "Associations of Ministers," in our different counties, must in many cases be broken up, to make room for new associations, founded on similarity of opinion. Thus, that intercourse which now subsists between ministers of different persuasions, and which tends to enlarge the mind and to give a liberality to the feelings, will be diminished, if not destroyed; and ministers, becoming more contracted and exclusive, will communicate more of this unhappy spirit to their societies.

In the next place, neighbouring churches, which, from their very foundation, have cultivated Christian communion and counseled and comforted each other, will be mutually estranged, and catching the temper of their religious guides, will exchange fellowship for denunciation; and instead of delighting in each other's prosperity, will seek each other's destruction.

Again; in the same church, where Christians of different views have long acknowledged each other as disciples of our Master, and have partaken the same feast of charity, angry divisions will break forth, parties will be marshaled under different leaders, the sentence of excommunication will be hurled by the majority on their guiltless brethren (if the majority should be "orthodox "), and thus anger, heart-burnings and bitter recriminations will spread through many of our towns and churches.

Again; many of our religious societies will be rent asunder, their ministers dismissed, and religious institutions cease. It is well known, that many of our country parishes are able to support but a single minister. At the same time, they are divided in sentiment; and nothing but a spirit of charity and forbearance has produced that union by which public worship has been maintained.

Once let the proposed war be proclaimed, let the standard of party be raised, and a minister must look for support to that party only to which he is attached. An "orthodox" minister should blush to ask it from men whom he denounces for honest opinions, and to whom he denies all the ordinances of the Gospel. It surely cannot be expected that Liberal Christians will contribute, by their property, to uphold a system of exclusion and intolerance directed against themselves. What, then, will be the fate of many of our societies? Their ministers, even now, can with difficulty maintain the conflict with other denominations. Must they not sink, when deserted by their most efficient friends?

Many societies will be left, as sheep without a shepherd, a prey to those whom we call sectarians, but who will no longer have an exclusive right to the name, if the system of division, which has been proposed, be adopted. Many ministers will be compelled to leave the field of their labors and their prospects of usefulness; and I fear the ministry will lose its hold on the affection and veneration of men, when it shall have engendered so much division and contention.

But this is not all. The system of denying the Christian name to those who differ from us in interpreting the Scriptures, will carry discord not only into churches, but families. In how many instances are heads of families divided in opinion on the present subjects of controversy? Hitherto they have loved each other as partakers of the same glorious hopes, and have repaired in their domestic joys and sorrows to the same God (as they imagined) through the same Mediator. But now, they are taught that they have different Gods and different gospels, and are taught that the friends of truth are not to hold communion with its rejecters. Let this doctrine be received, and one of the tenderest ties by which many wedded hearts are knit together will be dissolved. The family altar must fall. Religion will be known in many a domestic retreat, not as a bond of union, but a subject of debate, a source of discord or depression.

Now I ask, For what boon are all these sacrifices to be made? The great end is, that certain opinions, which have been embraced by many serious and inquiring Christians as the truth of God, may be driven from the church, and be dreaded by the people as among the worst of crimes. Uniformity of opinion, that airy good, which emperors, popes, councils, synods, bishops, and ministers have been seeking for ages, by edicts, creeds, threatenings, excommunications, inquisitions, and flames, this is the great object of the system of exclusion, separation, and denunciation, which is now to be introduced. To this we are to sacrifice our established habits and bonds of union; and this is to be pursued by means which, as many reflecting men believe, threaten our dearest rights and liberties.

It is sincerely hoped, that reflecting laymen will no longer shut their eyes on this subject. It is a melancholy fact, that our long established Congregational form of church government is menaced, and tribunals unknown to our churches, and unknown, as we believe, to the Scriptures, are to be introduced; and introduced for the very purpose, that the supposed errors and mistakes of ministers and private Christians may be tried and punished as heresies, that is, as crimes. In these tribunals, as in all ecclesiastical bodies, the clergy, who make theology their profession, will of necessity have a preponderating influence, so that the question now before the public is, in fact, only a new form of the old controversy, which has agitated all ages; namely, whether the clergy shall think for the laity, or prescribe to them their religion.

Were this question fairly proposed to the public, there would be but one answer; but it is wrapped up in a dark phraseology about the purity and order of the church, a phraseology, which, I believe, imposes on multitudes of ministers as well as laymen, and induces acquiescence in measures, the real tendency of which they would abhor.

It is, I hope, from no feeling of party, but from a sincere regard to the religion of Christ, that I would rouse the slumbering minds of this community to the dangers which hang over their religious institutions. No power is so rapidly accumulated, or so dreadfully abused, as ecclesiastical power. It assails men with menaces of eternal woe, unless they submit, and gradually awes the most stubborn and strongest minds into subjection. I mean not to ascribe the intention of introducing ecclesiastical tyranny to any class of Christians among us; but I believe, that many, in the fervor of a zeal which may be essentially virtuous, are about to touch with unhallowed hands the ark of God, to support Christianity by measures which its mild and charitable spirit abhors.

I believe, that many, overlooking the principles of human nature, and the history of the church, are about to set in motion a spring of which they know not the force, and cannot calculate the effects. I believe, that the seed of spiritual tyranny is sown, and although to a careless spectator it may seem the "smallest of all seeds," it has yet, within itself, a fatal principle of increase, and may yet darken this region of our country with its deadly branches.

The time is come, when the friends of Christian liberty and Christian charity are called to awake, and to remember their duties to themselves, to posterity, and to the church of Christ. The time is come, when the rights of conscience and the freedom of our churches must be defended with zeal. The time is come, when menace and denunciation must be met with a spirit which will show that we dread not the frowns and lean not on the favor of man. The time is come, when every expression of superiority on the part of our brethren should be repelled as criminal usurpation.

But in doing this, let the friends of liberal and genuine Christianity remember the spirit of their religion. Let no passion or bitterness dishonor their sacred cause. In contending for the Gospel, let them not lose its virtues or forfeit its promises. We are indeed called to pass through one of the severest trials of human virtue, the trial of controversy. We should carry with us a sense of its danger. Religion, when made a subject of debate, seems often to lose its empire over the heart and life. The mild and affectionate spirit of Christianity gives place to angry recriminations and cruel surmises. Fair dealing, uprightness, and truth, are exchanged for the arts of sophistry.

The devotional feelings, too, decline in warmth and tenderness. Let us, then, watch and pray. Let us take heed that the weapons of our warfare be not carnal. Whilst we repel usurpation, let us be just to the general rectitude of many by whom our Christian rights are invaded. Whilst we repel the uncharitable censures of men, let us not forget that deep humility and sense of unworthiness with which we should ever appear before God. In our zeal to maintain the great truth, that OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN is alone the Supreme God, let us not neglect that intercourse with him, without which the purest conceptions will avail little to enthrone him in our hearts. In our zeal to hold fast the "word of Christ," in opposition to human creeds and formularies, let us not forget, that our Lord demands another and a still more unsuspicious confession of him, even the exhibition of his spirit and religion in our lives.

The controversy in which we are engaged, is indeed painful; but it was not chosen, but forced upon us, and we ought to regard it as a part of the discipline to which a wise Providence has seen fit to subject us. Like all other trials, it is designed to promote our moral perfection. I trust, too, that it is designed to promote the cause of truth.

Whilst I would speak diffidently of the future, I still hope, that a brighter day is rising on the Christian church, than it has yet enjoyed. The Gospel is to shine forth in its native glory. The violent excitement, by which some of the corruptions of this divine system are now supported, cannot be permanent; and the uncharitableness with which they are enforced, will react, like the persecutions of the Church of Rome, in favor of truth. Already we have the comfort of seeing many disposed to inquire, and to inquire without that terror which has bound as with a spell so many minds.

We doubt not, that this inquiry will result in a deep conviction, that Christianity is yet disfigured by errors which have been transmitted from ages of darkness. Of this, at least, we are sure, that inquiry, by discovering to men the difficulties and obscurities which attend the present topics of controversy, will terminate in what is infinitely more desirable than doctrinal concord, in the diffusion of a mild, candid, and charitable temper. I pray God, that this most happy consummation may be in no degree obstructed by any unchristian feelings, which, notwithstanding my sincere efforts, have escaped me in the present controversy.


2003 American Unitarian Conference