American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition


Back to Classical Unitarian Writings page


James Walker

Second Edition. Printed for the American Unitarian Association. Boston: Gray and Bowen, 1830.

This discourse was delivered at the installation of Rev. Charles Robinson, at Groton, November 1, 1826, and was afterwards printed in an octavo pamphlet, in which form its circulation was of necessity limited.


A considerable number of Christians in this section of the country have been entering, for some years back, into what is called the Exclusive System. This system consists in a combination to deny Christian fellowship, the Christian name, and all Christian privileges to such as differ from them beyond a certain mark, which mark they assume the right to fix for themselves, and alter at pleasure. It would be wrong to charge this system on any one denomination, as such, for Christians of several denominations, agreeing together in what are termed fundamentals, have come into it; and besides, it is believed that there is no denomination in which there are not numbers, especially among the laity, who reprobate the whole measure as much, and as sincerely as we do. However this may be, the distinction between the Exclusive Party, constituted as I have said, and the Liberal Party, threatens to swallow up all other distinctions, and divide the church on a new principle. From the entire confidence we feel in the good sense and general intelligence of the people of this country, and in the jealousy with which they are accustomed to watch against everything that looks, even, towards an abridgment of their liberties, we have no fears as to the final issue of this attempt. At the same time, as we can no longer shut our eyes on the fact that an extensive and powerful combination is forming in the bosom of this community, to carry everything, in church and state, by the Exclusive System, some exertion should be made to enlighten public opinion in regard to the origin of this measure, the fallacy of the reasonings by which its friends think to recommend it, and its real tendencies.


We may observe then, in the first place, that there is no obscurity over the origin and history of this and similar usurpations. Men have always been willing that every one should think as he pleases, so long as he will please to think as they do; and this, especially when the clergy have been called in to decide the question, has commonly been the extent of their notions of religious liberty. Every sect has preached up just enough of liberality to answer its own purposes, that is to say, just enough to secure an indulgence to its own deviations from the traditionary faith. But further than this, almost everyone has agreed, that liberality must be a very dangerous thing. All have allowed a certain latitude of thinking, within which liberty may be enjoyed, but if anyone should go beyond this, though in the exercise of the same liberty, he is to be regarded and treated as an apostate from the religion.


Acting on this principle, the Catholics began the Exclusive System among Christians; that is to say, they allowed a certain latitude of thinking to the members of their communion, but fixed a mark, beyond which if any one went, he was to be regarded and treated as an apostate from Christianity. The Protestants, as one man, complained of this as a most unrighteous measure, while they were suffering under it; but no sooner had they become established as an independent church, than they adopted the same themselves. They also, like the Catholics, allowed a certain latitude of thinking to the members of their communion, but fixed a mark, beyond which if any one went, though in the exercise of that very liberty on which Protestantism itself was founded, he was to be regarded and treated as an apostate from Christianity. The consequence was that each Protestant sect, as it fell away from the main body, received precisely the same treatment from those who called themselves orthodox among the Protestants, that is, the Protestant majority, which the first Protestants had received from those who called themselves orthodox among the Catholics, that is, the Catholic majority.


In process of time, however, the Protestant body became broken up into sects to such a degree that no one sect retained sufficient power to overawe the rest. Some sects, meanwhile, had arisen, which from the freedom of their opinions, or their honesty in avowing them, made themselves peculiarly obnoxious, not to one sect only, but to several sects. Accordingly, these several sects, finding themselves unable to accomplish their object single-handed, were disposed to forget their former differences and unite their strength, in the hope that, by such a combination, they might the better succeed in hunting down the common enemy. Many remember when the great body of the Orthodox clergy in New England attempted to cry down the Baptists, and after them the Methodists; and after that the schism arose among themselves, between what were called the old-fashioned Calvinists and the Hopkinsians; but all these differences are studiously kept out of sight, and in a great measure forgotten, now that a common object of dread has appeared in the progress of Liberal Christianity. It may be worth remarking, however, in this connection, as a curious lesson from history, and one which must do not a little to lessen the effect of their denunciations, that these sects, in their present unnatural combination, can hardly say anything so bad of Liberal Christians as they used to say of one another.


Our attention will next be directed to the leading assumption on which the parties in this coalition think to defend the system they have adopted. It is agreed on all sides, I believe, that a certain latitude of thinking must be expected and allowed among Christians; but the Exclusionists maintain that limits are to be set, beyond which this indulgence shall not be extended, and furthermore, that they are vested with authority to set these limits and alter them at pleasure. Their whole defence turns on the question of their possessing this authority. Before proceeding to contest the claim, I wish to clear the ground I am to take from all misapprehension. The Catholic may deny that I am a Catholic, the Baptist may deny that I am a Baptist, the Methodist may deny that I am a Methodist, and do no wrong. For my belonging to either of these sects depends on my according with the authorized formularies of the sect in question, and whether I do, or do not, accord with these authorized formularies, the sect that made them is certainly competent to determine. The standards by which I am to be tried, in this case, are the work of man. They were instituted by the sect in question, and of course, as I have before observed, the same authority that was competent to make them is competent to interpret and apply them. But if, merely on the strength of this, any sect or any number of sects presume to deny that I am a Christian, this is doing what they have no right to do.


And the reason is obvious. The fact whether I am a Christian or not does not depend, like the preceding, on my coming up to the commonly received standards of any sect, but on my coming up to the standard of the gospel; and whether I come up to this standard or not depends on which of several interpretations of the gospel is the true one. Now I have freely conceded to each sect the exclusive right to interpret and apply its own standards, because of its own framing, on the ground that each sect must certainly be supposed to understand what were its intentions in framing these standards, what they were intended to admit, and what to exclude. But when we come to apply the gospel as a standard, the case is different, for this being a standard framed by none of the contending sects, none can set up any claim to authority or infallibility in interpreting and applying it, which either of the others might not set up with just as much reason. You, as belonging to one sect, may say of me, as belonging to another, that I differ widely from you in the interpretation I put on the common standard acknowledged by us both. But you cannot say that my interpretation is a false one, for this is a point which you are not competent to decide. You may say that I preach another gospel from that which you preach, but you cannot say that I preach another gospel from that which Christ and his apostles preached, for this involves a question which you are not competent to decide. I differ from you, it is true, but not more than you differ from me; and as our difference relates to a subject, respecting which you cannot pretend to any degree of authority or infallibility, which I may not pretend to with just as much reason, if my differing from you proves me to be no Christian, your differing from me will also prove you to be no Christian. You must perceive, therefore, that this argument proves nothing, or proves too much.

Here I am prepared to meet the hackneyed plea that the dispute is not about common differences, such differences as must always be expected, but about fundamentals. It will be said that there must be some doctrines essential to Christianity, necessary to make it what it is, and without which it would not be what it is but something else, another gospel. Omit any of these doctrines, therefore, and it is contended that what remains will not be Christianity, and, of course, those who embrace it, will not be Christians.


Be it so. Nobody denies that Christianity, considered as a system of religious instruction, has its essential and fundamental doctrines, which are necessary to make it what it is, as a dispensation of pardon and life. But the question arises, who is to determine which these doctrines are? The Catholics said, 'We are the persons to determine, and we have determined it at the Council of Trent.' 'No,' said the Lutherans, 'not you, but we. We are the persons to determine it, and we have determined it in the Confession of Augsburgh.' 'Not at all,' said the Calvinists, 'not at all. It was not for such persons as you to pretend to this authority. We are the persons to determine it, and we have determined it at the Synod of Dort, and afterwards in the Westminster Assembly.' 'By no means,' said the Church of England. 'Who made you, or any of you, a judge in these matters? You are not the judge; we are the judge. If you want to know which are the essential and fundamental doctrines of the gospel, the appeal must be made to the Thirty-nine Articles.' Thus one sect after another has arisen, each denying to all the rest an authority, which, however, in the same breath it has had the inconsistency to arrogate to itself.


But, it may be said, the doctrines which all these sects pronounce fundamental must be so. All what sects? If by all these sects are meant all the sects in the world, the position, though conceded, would not answer the purpose of the Exclusionist; for, of course, there could be no ground for exclusion, so far as all were agreed. But if by all these sects are meant a certain number of sects, I would ask on what ground these sects arrogate to themselves an authority not supposed to belong to the rest, of determining for the whole church what shall be regarded as fundamental doctrines. In such a contest, it is with sects as it is with individuals; no one sect can set up pretensions to infallibility, which any other sect might not set up with just as much reason. And as for any additional authority to be derived from the circumstance of its being a combination of several sects, it should be considered that on such a combination they cease to be several sects, and, so far as the Exclusive System is concerned, are to be regarded as one sect formed on a more comprehensive principle.


If, indeed, it were not only settled that there are certain essential and fundamental doctrines of the gospel, but also which these doctrines are, there might be some reason in considering such as should reject them as virtually renouncing the religion. But while the question which these doctrines are is the very question at issue, it is manifestly premature for either party to begin to act upon it, as if it had already been decided by a competent authority. The obvious fact seems to be strangely and unaccountably overlooked, that man's fallibility applies to his judgment respecting fundamentals, nay, that it applies in a twofold degree. It is a question whether these doctrines are doctrines of Christianity, and, if doctrines of Christianity, it is a question whether they are fundamental doctrines, both of which questions are disputed, and in both of which he may be mistaken. Were I to reject what I myself regard as essential and fundamental doctrines of Christianity, the case would be different, I allow; but this is not pretended. It is not pretended that both parties admit the doctrines in question to be essential and fundamental, but only that you hold certain doctrines to be so, which I do not. Well then, what is to be done? Why, you must convince me that I am wrong, if you can; but, pending this controversy, you must remember that you are only a party to it, and not party and umpire too. Convince me that I am wrong, if you can; but till you have done this, you must not think, in your conduct towards me, to take it for granted that I am wrong; for this is the point to be proved, not taken for granted.


The Exclusionist will say, perhaps, that he does not assume the right of deciding this point on authority, but merely as a matter of opinion and sincere conviction. He will say that, in his opinion, I have renounced essentials of Christianity, and consequently am no Christian, and further that the assertion is always understood with this qualifying clause. Nay, he may contend that this is one of those interesting questions on which a man cannot help making up an opinion on one side or the other; and after his opinion is made up, to deny him the right to express it would not be to secure, but to destroy liberty. Everything like authority being disclaimed, it may be asked, in a tone of triumph, whether this is not a subject on which a man in a free country may hold and avow his honest convictions.


Certainly he may, so long as he can do it without interfering with the rights of others. It will hardly be pretended, however, that the declaration of an opinion, merely as an opinion, is always allowable, when this declaration, true or false, must injure others. It is an acknowledged principle, and in free countries too, that we have no right to scatter about our opinions, as opinions, without considering the effect it will have on others. I do not mean by this that our lips should be sealed on the subject of our religious differences; but I do mean that when we open them to denounce others, and prejudice the community against them, it is not enough to say in justification that we speak as we think, But waiving this point, I deny the fact itself on which the whole argument is based. It is not true that the supporters of the Exclusive System avow and advocate what they term fundamentals, as mere matters of opinion. Doctrines of minor importance they will allow to be regarded in this light, and therefore as still open to discussion, presenting questions respecting which fair and good minds may differ. But when they come to speak of doctrines accounted by themselves essential and fundamental, their tone and manner are changed, and they speak of them, not as mere matters of opinion, but as established verities, which none are at liberty to reject, or even to doubt, and which all must see as they see, whose understandings are not darkened by moral prejudices. On other topics they would be understood to speak as they think, but on these they would be understood to speak as they know, and they are so understood in fact by a large majority of their followers; and their language, accordingly, is in the highest degree confident and overbearing, and owes not a little of its effect on the credulous and timid to this very circumstance. Nor is this all. They not only advance what they consider fundamental doctrines as established verities, but proceed immediately to act on them as established verities. The charge against Exclusionists is not that they hold certain opinions, or that they avow and advocate their honest convictions, but that they take up certain opinions, which are mere opinions, and advance them as established verities, and act on them as such, and this, too, when they know that the feelings, reputation, and substantial interests of others are endangered or seriously injured thereby. The charge is that, forgetting their fallibility, they act towards others, and to the great prejudice of others, precisely as if they thought themselves infallible, and in a way to be justified only on such an assumption.


To this it may be replied that, notwithstanding our acknowledged fallibility, we are under the necessity of acting on opinion, and oftentimes on mere opinion and disputed opinion, and in direct collision with the opinions, wishes, and interests of those whom we oppose. This is true in certain cases, but it is not true in any case so far parallel with that in question, as to warrant reasoning from one to another. Thus the construction put upon a law is in some sense a mere matter of opinion among the judges, and often of disputed opinion, and yet this opinion is enforced. But then it should be remembered that the judges are invested with authority for this very purpose, and it will hardly be pretended that any Christian, or body of Christians, is invested with a like authority to decree what construction shall be put on the word of God. Again, I may think my neighbor unworthy of confidence, and on the strength of this opinion I may proceed against him so far as to withhold my confidence and my society, and I have a perfect right to do this, because my confidence and society are my own, and at my own disposal; but it will hardly be pretended that the Christian name and privileges are in the same sense my own, and at my disposal. Further, I may think my neighbor is not only unworthy of confidence, but a dangerous member of the community, and on the strength of this opinion I may feel called upon, not only to withhold my own confidence and society, but to denounce him publicly. And this, also, I may do in those cases provided for by the laws, because in such cases a competent tribunal exists before which I may be arraigned, where the accused will have an opportunity, if he has been wronged, to assert and establish his innocence. But it will hardly be pretended that in matters of faith and conscience a competent tribunal of this kind has been established amongst us, to which the injured party can appeal for redress, for to say that he may appeal to the tribunal of public opinion is merely to answer me, and to attempt to blind me, by a figure of speech.


'Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth' [Rom. 14:4]. The head of the church has been pleased to leave the questions at issue among his followers, open and undecided, with an express direction that the wheat and the tares be permitted  to grow together until the harvest. Any attempt, therefore, to prejudge these questions, and act on such unauthorized prejudices, is precisely as if in civil jurisprudence a man should anticipate the legal sentence, take the law into his own hands, and proceed against a supposed offender, just as if he had been tried and condemned by the proper tribunal. You are aware that this would be accounted a high misdemeanor in the freest countries; and as the misdemeanor has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the judgment, but consists in its being usurpation of authority, it obviously remains the same, though the supposed offender should afterwards be proved to be a real offender. For the same reason, if it should turn out hereafter that the Exclusionist is right in his opinions, it will not justify him in having acted on them, for he did not know that he was right, and he had no authority to injure others by acting on this presumption. We are amazed at the air of confidence with which Exclusionists often appeal for justification to the example of Jesus Christ and his apostles, as if Jesus Christ and his apostles did not possess an authority for deciding questions of this nature, and a spiritual illumination, which few Christians of the present day, I should hope, would have the audacity to claim.


Thus far I have considered it undecided what doctrines are fundamental, but admit, for a moment, that those which are assumed to be so are really so. Does it follow that a man must know and receive them, and every one of them, or not be a Christian? Strictly speaking, a man is not a Christian because he understands and believes the doctrines which Jesus Christ taught, but because he acknowledges and confides in Jesus Christ as a teacher. If in any way a man could be brought to confide in Jesus Christ as a. teacher come from God, from that moment he would be a Christian, though as yet he had not opened the New Testament and did not know a syllable of its contents. When Martha said, 'Yea, Lord; I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world' [John 11:27] and when Simon Peter said, 'We believe, and are sure, that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God' [Matt. 16:16], and when the Ethiopian Eunuch said, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God' [Acts 8:35-36], all of them were, or from that moment became, Christians, in the proper sense of that term as used at the present day, and were so regarded by the sacred writers. All of them from that moment became Christians, though as yet it only appeared that they were prepared to receive the essential and fundamental doctrines of the gospel, and not that they already knew them and had embraced them.


To be sure, when we come to consider the moral effect of the doctrines of Christianity, this effect must be expected to be different according as our view of the doctrines is more or less just and perfect. In this respect certain doctrines may be said to be essential to the system itself, to make it what it is, as a dispensation of holiness. Nay, I would go farther than this and say of every doctrine of Christianity, however minute and subordinate, that it is essential to the system itself, to make it precisely what it is, considered as a dispensation of holiness. When, therefore, certain doctrines are singled out and treated as essential and fundamental doctrines of Christianity, it is only a loose and inaccurate mode of speaking, not meaning that they are the only doctrines essential to the system, for in this sense all the other doctrines are essential, nor yet that these doctrines are more essential than the rest, for this would be a solecism, essential not admitting of degrees, but merely that these doctrines are peculiarly important for their moral effect. We should be again and again reminded, however, that when we speak of essential doctrines, we mean essential to the system itself, and not that a belief in them is essential. It is a belief in the system as a system that makes a man a Christian, and not a belief in these particular doctrines, though a belief in these particular doctrines may have a tendency to make him a better Christian.


Hence the fallacy of those Exclusionists who think to justify themselves by saying that, as we differ in essentials and fundamentals, if they are Christians, we are not, and if we are Christians, they are not. For, though we do differ in essentials and fundamentals, it does not follow but that both parties may be Christians, so that there may be an injustice in denying the name and privileges to either. It may be as in a civil war, growing out of a difference of opinion as to what is best calculated to promote the public weal, in which both parties, though opposed to one another in things essential and fundamental, profess to be patriots, and both parties may in fact be patriots. It may be proper also, in this connection, to expose the mistake of those who argue that we have the same reason to question a man's right to the Christian name and privileges for errors of doctrine, as for errors of life. A man does not cease to be a Christian merely because he has been guilty of immoralities, for in this case nobody would be a Christian, for there is none that doeth good, and sinneth not, no, not one [Psalm 14:3]. But a man's immoralities may be of such a kind, or to such a degree, as to bear heavily on the question of his sincerity and veracity. We wish to know whether a man really believes in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah, and in determining this point we have a right to consider, and indeed we cannot help considering, his actions, as well as his professions. A man's errors of life, therefore, may do what his errors of doctrine cannot. They may destroy all confidence in his assertions and convince us that he does not believe what he says he believes; in other words, that he is not a Christian, but an impostor.


All this, however, it may be said, is very well to those who think so, but it can have no influence, and it ought to have none, on those who are otherwise minded. So long as the convictions of Exclusionists continue as they are, conscience will not permit them to pursue a different course. How can they conscientiously hold any intercourse with a man as a Christian, when they do not believe him to be a Christian, especially since such conduct must have the effect to countenance him in holding and propagating doctrines, which they may not only regard as errors, but as fatal errors? Let their principles be ever so false, and their reasonings ever so inconclusive, still if they really believe that a man is not a Christian, must they not act on this belief, and treat him accordingly?


This argument seems to proceed on the assumption that if a man has an opinion on any subject, he is bound in conscience to act on it; but is this assumption well founded? On the contrary, if a man forms an opinion on any subject, is he not bound in conscience, before he acts on it, to consider whether he has weighed the evidence on both sides, whether his previous habits and studies have prepared him to decide the question, and above all, whether the question is one which, from its own nature, any man is competent to decide? Perhaps he cannot help holding his opinion, right or wrong; but he can help acting on it, and he is bound in conscience to do this, until he is convinced that it relates to a question which he is competent to decide, and is authorized to decide. Now, as it has been shown that the question whether a man is a Christian or not is one which no man is competent to decide, or authorized to decide for another, it follows that, instead of being bound in conscience to act on an opinion formed on this subject, we are bound in conscience to refrain from acting. In short, the whole question resolves itself into this; is a fallible man bound in conscience to act as if he were infallible?


But certainly the Exclusionist thinks he is obeying conscience, which is the same thing. The same thing with what? Even in a moral view, and as respects the individual himself, is it the same thing whether he really obeys conscience, or only mistakes his will for his conscience? Besides, we are not testing men, but measures. The question, therefore, is not whether he thinks that conscience constrains him to pursue the course he has adopted, but whether he ought to think so, whether he has sufficient reason for thinking so, even on his own principles; and we have shown that he has not. I have no disposition to say of Exclusionists generally that they are not sincere. Any man is sincere who acts from an opinion which he really holds, however hastily formed, and however incompetent he may be to decide the question to which it relates. But when we come to speak of what conscience requires or forbids, I maintain that every man is bound by this principle, before he acts on any opinion to the injury of another, to consider and ascertain whether he is competent to decide the question at issue. If, therefore, hurried on by his passions or prejudices, he neglect to do this, I may still admit that he is sincere, but I cannot see how he can be said to have consulted his conscience, and much less that conscience lays a necessity on him to act in this manner. I repeat it, I have no disposition to call in question the sincerity of Exclusionists, nor is it necessary to the argument, though I must remark, in passing, that the protestations of the party concerned are not the best evidence of sincerity, and furthermore that there is hardly any virtue in regard to which men are more liable to self-deception.


Besides, what is there in this plea of conscience, or of zeal for the truth, or of concern for souls, that will justify the Exclusive System and not justify, at the same time, almost every measure of usurpation, injustice, or cruelty that has ever been attempted under the name of religion? Utter extermination was decreed against the Albigenses in France, and afterwards against the Lollards in England; the English Protestants, down almost to the Revolution under William and Mary, continued to drag to the stake, or drive into exile, the Anabaptists and Arians, and Calvin himself could instigate in the heat of passion, and afterwards justify in cold blood, the burning of Servetus before a slow fire mad of green wood. History is full of details of such outrages, committed, and to all appearance sincerely, on this same plea of conscience, a zeal for the truth, and concern for souls. Admit it, therefore, in one instance and where shall we stop? When urged in favor of the Exclusive System, as conducted at the present day, I do not say it is entitled to less regard than in the case above mentioned, but I ask for reasons to convince me that it is entitled to more.


A distinction, I know, is attempted to be drawn in favor of those who would check the progress of errors by ecclesiastical penalties only, which is all that modern Exclusionists pretend to justify in this country. On the strength of this distinction, it is contended that it is at the same time illogical and unjust to array against the Exclusive System, as conducted at present in this country, prejudices to which it is liable only when enforced by the civil arm. It seems at length to be conceded that neither the reasonings nor motives of the Exclusionist will justify him in injuring me in my life, property, or personal liberty, let him be ever so sincere, and even though he should be able to work himself into a belief that this could be right, but still it is contended that they will justify him in injuring me by ecclesiastical censures. The popular objections and prejudices against the Exclusive System do not hold, it is thought, against the system itself, but only against the harsh and cruel means that have been employed in enforcing it.


I suspect it will be found, on a closer examination, that this distinction is not of so much importance in the present controversy as is generally supposed. If we inquire into the manner in which the Exclusive System has been carried into execution in different ages and countries, it will be found that its friends have always adopted the most decisive and energetic means which the age or country would bear. So long as they dared to touch the life of the supposed misbeliever, they were satisfied with nothing short of his blood. When they no longer dared aim at this, they were obliged to content themselves with maiming his person, tearing out his tongue, cutting off his ears, or branding him in the forehead. As society became more refined, and scenes like these became more revolting and intolerable to public feeling, they found it necessary so far to relent as to be satisfied with sending him into perpetual banishment, or with immuring him in prisons and dungeons, like a common felon. In the onward march of improvement, mankind came at length to have some faint understanding of the rights of conscience, and the friends of the Exclusive System had to accommodate their policy to this further change in public opinion; and leaving untouched the life and liberty of the supposed misbeliever, they were obliged to content themselves with confiscating his property, or mulcting him in heavy and ruinous fines. Society and the human mind continuing to advance, it soon became necessary for them, in some countries, to give up this check on dissent, as they had preceding, and their next plan was to compel uniformity by subjecting the recusant to civil disabilities, making him ineligible to any of the high offices of state, and incapable of holding certain kinds of property, or of prosecuting his rightful claims in a court of justice. At last, even this expedient has failed them in this country, leaving them no other possible resort but what are termed ecclesiastical censures. These consist in denouncing the offender as an apostate from Christianity, a disguised infidel, and in doing everything in their power, without the aid of the civil arm, to lessen his credit and influence as a Christian among Christians.


While I admit, therefore, that a gradual improvement has been going on, I cannot give the credit of this improvement to those who have been disputing its progress inch by inch. I cannot give a man much credit even for being better, if it can be shown that he is still as bad, under existing circumstances, he dares be, or can be. If the friends of the Exclusive System would take to themselves any credit for the milder measures that are now employed to coerce uniformity, let them show, if they can, that they have adopted these milder measures any sooner, or any further, than they have been compelled to adopt them.


Much stress is laid on the distinction that modern Exclusionists, at least in this country, do not avail themselves of the aid of the civil arm. But it should be considered that the true question is not whether they avail themselves of the aid of the civil arm, but whether their measures are not adapted to injure us in our civil relations. The injustice of former Exclusionists, the Spanish Inquisition for example, did not consist simply in employing the civil arm to inflict the penalties they adjudged, but in adjudging such penalties as affected the supposed misbeliever in his civil relations. What if instead of entrusting the execution of their sentence to the civil officer, they had chosen to use the influence they possessed over the public mind, to cause their victim to be put under the ban of society, or had given him up to be torn in pieces on the spot by an incensed populace? Would this have made the proceeding less cruel, or less unrighteous?


Now will anyone pretend that the Exclusionists of this country do not aim to injure their opponents in their civil relations? Denounce me as an enemy of the truth and a hater of God, call in question my sincerity and impute my supposed errors to a corrupt heart, hold me up as a dangerous man in the community, a man with whom it must be unsafe to associate from the contagion of my bad principles, make use of my religious opinions to prevent my political elevation, or represent them as a sufficient reason why I should not be entrusted with the education of the young—this is the course pursued by most Exclusionists in this country—and will anyone pretend that this is not to attempt to injure me in my civil relations? Is it not to attempt to injure me in my standing and prospects in society? But my standing and prospects in society are as much my property, as a good citizen, as my houses and lands, and nothing, therefore, will justify an attempt to injure me in one, which would not also justify an attempt to injure me in the other. Make it to be just to do what the Exclusionists of this country have often done. Make it to be just to sow dissension in my family, to injure me in the good opinion of my friends and the community, to subject me to any imputation whereby I may suffer either in my comfort, business, or character as a member of society. Make it to be just to do this without any authority for so doing, on the strength of a mere opinion, which may be right, or may be wrong, and there is nothing the Spanish Inquisition ever did which was not just. I do not mean that the conduct of modern Exclusionists is equally revolting to humanity, but I maintain that it is alike irreconcilable with the principles of strict justice and religious liberty.


Once more, it may be replied that my objections are still directed against the abuses of the Exclusive System, or at least against its incidental effects, and not against the system itself. Men may be Exclusionists, sincere and consistent, and yet their only object be to sever the erring member's connections with the church; and if their doing this has the effect to injure him in his civil relations, it is an effect merely incidental, and not intended, and consequently neither they, nor the system, are responsible for it.


I deny that this effect is merely incidental. The system and its abettors are responsible not only for its immediate effects, and those which are really desired and intended, but also for all those which they must see will follow, not incidentally, but necessarily. Now the very act of severing a man's connections with the church on the principle avowed in this system is to hold him up to view as an infidel, and the more to be dreaded and shunned because a disguised infidel. And will anyone pretend that this must not necessarily injure a man in his civil relations? Would anyone like to have his children regard him as an infidel? Would a man be as likely to form good connections in life, or be received into good society, if he were regarded by all who knew him as an infidel? With respect to many, would it not even affect the confidence reposed in him as a man of business to have it generally understood that he is a disguised infidel? We all attach some importance to the moral restraints which Christianity imposes, and must it not, therefore, take something from a man's credit in the community to have it supposed that these restraints are not felt by him? All these effects must be seen to follow, not incidentally, but necessarily, from the very act of severing a man's connections with the church, on the ground that he is not a Christian.    You may say, perhaps, that if he is not a Christian, they ought to follow. And so they should; but not until this question is decided by a competent authority. You have no right to touch a hair of his head, on the ground that he is not a Christian, until this question has been decided by a competent authority.


Much of the wrong done men in their civil relations follows, therefore, necessarily from the Exclusive System, and consequently may be fairly charged on the system itself. True, in an enlightened community like ours, where liberal principles prevail to so great an extent, the denunciations of the Exclusionist may not be generally respected, and so lose much of their effect. But I am speaking of what would follow in a community where these denunciations are generally respected; and it is certainly no fault of the system, or its supporters, that they are not so respected everywhere. Besides, if from any cause this system has become a powerless instrument of injustice, it does not make it less inexcusable to attempt to revive its energies, though the attempt should fail.


I go farther than this. The practice of voting members into churches, and voting members out, has insinuated the idea that the question whether a man is a Christian or not is left to be decided by vote, by a show of hands. And yet can anyone be so senseless as to think that a man is any more a Christian merely because a knot of his friends say so, or that he is any less a Christian merely because a knot of his enemies say so?  A man is a Christian because he possesses in himself the requisite qualifications, and not because, in a small church in an obscure village, four out of half a dozen have said, Aye. If a man possesses in himself the requisite qualifications, he is a Christian; and when such a person comes and claims the name and privileges of a Christian, he claims no more than what is manifestly his right, a right, moreover, accompanied with a corresponding obligation in others to respect it. If he is a Christian, he has the same right to the name and privileges of a Christian that he has to the name and privileges of a citizen, and no self-constituted tribunal has any more authority to attempt to deprive him of the former, than of the latter.     Could it be shown, therefore, that the Exclusive System does not interfere at all with our civil relations, or that it is not answerable for such interference, still it could not be defended.


There are those who seem to regard the church as a kind of corporation, possessing corporate rights, and among the rest, the right of enacting its own bylaws, in the form of a covenant, and excluding all such as will not concur in this covenant. If by this it is merely meant that a number of Christians have a right to go off, and communicate by themselves, and draw up rules and regulations for the government of the association, few, I presume, would be disposed to quarrel with the measure, so long, I mean, as it does not interfere with the rights of others, and is not resorted to for the purpose of fixing a stigma on others, or with a knowledge that it will have this effect; though under any circumstances, I suspect, it would be accounted an odd way of evincing their Christian sympathies. Unquestionably in almost every social act, a man has a right to choose his own companions; but he has no right to do this on the declared assumption that his companions are honest men, and all the rest of the world are knaves, and are to be treated as knaves. For the same reason, a Christian may have a right to choose his own companions in worship, and in the other ordinances of religion, but he has no right to do this on the declared assumption that his companions are good Christians, and all the rest of the world deists and infidels, and to be treated as deists and infidels. The conditions on which a man is entitled to the Christian name and privileges have not been left to be instituted at the present day, but are set forth in the gospel, and everyone is at liberty to interpret them for himself. If by 'church,' therefore, we are to understand the whole body of believers, all who are entitled to the Christian name and privileges, it is not true that it can be compared to a corporation having authority to decree the terms on which new members shall be admitted, for these terms are prescribed by a higher power, and the church cannot alter them, nor add to them, and the right to interpret them is not given to the church in its corporate capacity, but is expressly reserved to each individual, who is responsible to God and to no one else. Indeed, this pretext that the church is a corporate body vested with authority by its great Head to determine, either by arbitrary institutions or arbitrary interpretations, who shall be considered as Christians, is at the bottom of all the usurpations of the Church of Rome, and it is on this principle that all her usurpations are supported.


I have intimated, repeatedly, that Exclusionists associate and act in a manner to interfere with the rights of other Christians; but it may be said that, if they do, it is because there is an unavoidable collision of rights, and in such a case, they have as good right to their way as we have to our way. But this unavoidable collision of rights exists only in the imagination of the Exclusionist. He may believe as much as he pleases, or as little as he pleases, and he may worship when he pleases, and where he pleases, and so long as we have reason to think that he is governed, in what he does, by a sincere regard for the gospel, as he understands it, we shall not question his title to the Christian name and privileges; and what more can he possibly claim? We recognise and respect in others the same rights which we assert for ourselves, and where, then, I ask again, is this unavoidable clashing of rights? If, indeed, not content with exercising the right of judging for themselves, any individual, or any number of individuals, assume the prerogative of judging for everybody else, this produces a clashing, I admit—not, however, a clashing of rights, but the clashing of an arrogant and unfounded assumption with one of the best established privileges of human nature, freedom of thought. It is not a collision of rights, but a collision of wills; and, in such a case, it does not follow, because both parties cannot have their will, that one party has as good a right to have it as the other. In such a case, that party only has a right to gratification, whose will is such that gratifying it will not interfere with the just claims of the other. Now, let the course recommended by Liberal Christians be universally adopted, and I ask, on what right of the Exclusionist would it infringe in the smallest degree, unless it be the right to do wrong, or the right of the strongest.


But adopting this course, what do we leave to protect the church against the inroads and progress of error? I answer, argument, persuasion, the example of good men, the promises of the Saviour, and the providence of Almighty God. If anyone hesitates to commit his cause to such keeping, I think it a fair inference either that he distrusts God, or that he distrusts his cause.


I have stated, as briefly as I could, the reasonings by which Exclusionists think to defend themselves, and I believe I have exposed the fallacy of these reasonings and followed it through most of its windings and subterfuges. It only remains for me to notice some of the practical tendencies of the system.


I speak to Protestants, and I ask them to consider with what feelings they ought to regard a system, the tendency of which is to set aside and deny the principles of the Reformation? If any sect could present the shadow of an excuse for persisting in exclusive measures, it would be, beyond all question, the Church of Rome, because, while the pretension on their part is quite as well founded in all other respects, it certainly has the advantage of priority and consistency over that of any other denomination of Christians. They were the first to adopt this policy, and to make it consistent, they at the same time pretended not only that their church was the only true church, but that God had guaranteed infallibility to its decisions on all points touching what is necessary to be believed. The Exclusive System, therefore, is consistent with the principles openly maintained by this church; but it is wholly subversive, as I conceive, of the principles of true Protestantism. These principles are the sufficiency of the scriptures and the right of private judgment, leaving to every Christian the liberty of interpreting the Bible for himself. But in this liberty to interpret the Bible for himself is included the liberty of coming to his own conclusions as to its true import. It is idle—it is absurd—to talk about a man's right to interpret the Bible for himself without a forfeiture of the Christian name and privileges, and yet not allow him to come to his own conclusions as to its true import, without subjecting himself to this penalty. How little, comparatively, has been gained by reformation in religion, up to this hour, if we have merely secured ourselves against oppression by the civil arm in matters of conscience? And, besides, this has not been gained so much by a reformation in religion, as in civil government. If we are tired of Protestantism, let us give it up and go back again to the bosom of the venerable mother of the churches, and not think, in the true spirit of slaves, to cheat ourselves with the name of liberty, after having surrendered all its privileges. At any rate, let us go back to her principles, so that, though we may not be consistent with reason, or justice, or scripture, we may at least be consistent with ourselves.


I speak to the people of New England, and I ask them to consider the countless evils which the Exclusive System has inflicted, and is still inflicting, on society. Here I shall not remind you of the wars it has kindled, of the kingdoms it has rent, of the massacres it has instigated and countenanced, and of racks, and fagots, and dungeons, for the day has gone by for the repetition of such outrages. Your attention ought rather to be directed to the thousand ways by which, in the present state of things, this system may be made to disturb the peace and happiness of the community. Just so far as it prevails, it puts power into the hands of ambitious and designing men to foment disputes and divisions of the most malignant character. They can creep into your families and sow discord there. They can enter into a village, where all is harmony and good neighbourhood, and in the course of a few days raise there a spirit of censoriousness and evil judging, produce estrangement among old friends and create miserable feuds, which it will take years on years to allay. Perhaps nothing has done so much for the order, virtue, and religion of New England as her parochial establishments and the regular and independent manner in which religious institutions have been supported and observed. But let this system prevail, and it puts power into the hands of men of very ordinary abilities, to disturb, if not to break up, almost every parish in the country. The consequence will be that many of these parishes will be torn and divided, and as neither party will be able to meet the expense of maintaining regular worship, it will be given up in part, or altogether, or they will be obliged to depend on begging for a precarious and humiliating resource. Worse than all, it is the tendency of this system, and I believe I may say its design and object, to connect religion with politics and make a man's political elevation to depend not on his abilities, fidelity, and public services, but on his belonging to a particular party in the church, or on his willingness to prostitute his official influence in promoting the views of this party. May God Almighty shield this land from the train of evils that would follow the success of such a combination!


We may be told, however, that these are only incidental evils, and much more than counterbalanced by the good influences of the system. But I ask that one of these good influences may be named. Has it aided the progress of truth? No. It has much oftener been employed to prop up the tottering throne of error; and even when it has been directed against error, error has arisen and made itself strong under the protection of the generous sympathies of men against such unrighteous measures to put it down. Has it promoted in any way the best interests of humanity? No. The Father of our spirits has made us much more capable of judging what is good, than what is true. What excuse, then, can they have to offer, who, in a blind devotion to their own uncertain prejudices, have sought to propagate them, though on the ruins of everything that can make society peaceful, prosperous, and happy? Has it made men more virtuous? No. It has roused and inflamed, on both sides, passions that scorn the restraints of conscience, and men have sought to carry their objects in religion by means that would have disgraced a scramble for office in times of high political excitement. Has it increased men's regard for the Saviour? No. They have pretended to be contending for his honor, but they have forgotten what he said, 'A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another' [John 13:34]. And our piety to God, has that been heightened by a system which tramples on the meek and mild principles of our nature, and gives ample field to its fierce and bad passions? No. What then has this system done? Evil, unexampled evil, nothing but evil. Oh! How different from him whose whole life was love! Oh! How different from that religion, which is 'first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy!' [James 3:17]. When will men learn that the highest reverence they can pay to the truth is to obey it themselves, and the best way in which they can illustrate it and recommend it to others is by an example that all must admire for its loveliness and consistency?


Once more, then, let me conjure the serious, enlightened and well disposed to make up their minds on the merits of a controversy in which, as I have said, almost every other is likely sooner or later to be merged. Is it for man to judge and act as if he were infallible, especially in regard to those dark and abstruse questions in theology, which have occupied and divided the most gifted minds from the beginning? The world, as it has grown older and wiser, has grown more liberal. Would you have us go back and breathe again the spirit of the dark ages? It is not enough considered that, if the positions which I have taken be tenable, exclusiveness in religion is not an error merely, but a sin, and to be resisted as such, and shunned as such. In our dreams of a perfect man, we always make him strict and inexorable toward himself, candid and tolerant toward others. This is Liberal Christianity. The charity which the gospel enjoins 'beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things' [1 Cor. 13:7]. 'And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing' [1 Cor. 13:2].



[1] The term is used in this discourse in its philosophical sense.

[2] Cousin’s Introduction to the History of Philosophy, pp. 179, 180.

©2005 American Unitarian Conference