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THE following passages occur in a sermon delivered before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, May, 1808, by the Rev. Archibald Alexander, and printed at the desire of the session of his own church.
Pages 11, 12, 13. "From the signs of the times, I apprehend the danger to evangelical truth which will now arise, will be from two opposite points: from what is called rational christianity, and enthusiasm."
"Most of those speculative men who were lately inclined to deism, will how fill the ranks of socinianism or unitarianism, as they choose to denominate their religion. The errors of idolized reason are very dangerous, because they have for their abetters the learned and powerful of this world, and the influence of their example is very extensive."
"These opinions, however, are not likely to spread very widely among the common people, as they divest religion of all its awful and interesting attributes; so that the more sincerely and fully any person becomes a convert to this system, the more indifferent he will become to all religion. But no religion will engage the attention of people generally, unless it be calculated to interest their feelings. It appears to me, therefore, that enthusiasm
is likely to spread more extensive mischief among the unlearned than any species of free-thinking. The passions excited by enthusiasm, it is true, are too violent to be lasting; but the evil produced is, nevertheless, often permanent. Enthusiasm and superstition have commonly been represented as the two extremes in religion; but to me it appears, that they are near akin, and succeed each other as cause and effect. The wild ebullitions of enthusiasm, when they subside, leave their subjects under the fatal influence of some absurd opinions, which become the creed of a new sect; and almost invariably such superstitious customs are adopted as are effectual to shield them from every approach of truth: so that these errors are often perpetuated for many generations, and at last only die with the extinction of the people who held them*.”
"It is curious to observe how nearly extremes sometimes approach each other in their ultimate effects. No two things appear more opposite in their origin and operation than unitarianism and enthusiasm: the one proceeding from the pride of reason, the other from the exuberance of the imagination; the one renouncing all pretensions to
* The subsiding of the wild ebullitions of enthusiasm, according to our author, tends to the production of a new sect, and this new sect adopts, in consequence, superstitious customs. Can he mean to designate unitarianism by the term new sect, and, as the offspring of enthusiasm, to fasten upon it the charge of superstition? How then are we to understand his reasoning in the following paragraph, where unitarianism and enthusiasm are represented as opposite extremes? The whole passage seems to stand very much in need of elucidation.
divine assistance, the other professing to be guided by inspiration at every step: yet in this they agree, that they equally tend to discredit and set aside the authority of the scriptures of truth. The rationalist will not receive many of the doctrines of revelation, because they do not accord with his pre-conceived notions, which he calls the dictates of reason. The enthusiast will not submit to the authority of scripture, because he imagines that he is under the direction of a superior guide. The one makes his own reason the judge of what he will receive as true from the volume of revelation; the other determines every thing, whether it relate to opinion or practice, by the suggestions of his fancied inspiration."
"On the errors which arise from both these quarters we should keep a watchful eye; and against them we should make a firm and faithful stand. On the one hand, we must unequivocally deny to reason the high office of deciding at her bar what doctrines of scripture are to be received, and what not; and, on the other, we must insist that all opinions, pretensions, experiences, and practices must be judged by the standard of the word of God."
On the 10th July, 1808, the following observations on the foregoing passages were delivered, immediately after the reading of Davies's sermon on the catholic import of the christian name, at the meeting of the Unitarian Society in Philadelphia, by R. Eddowes.
This view of christianity, my brethren, given, with a few necessary alterations, from the works of a late minister of the presbyterian church in this country, and who was equally zealous as any of the present day for what is deemed sound doctrine, does the highest honour to his memory. And though none will venture to deny that he has placed the true test of a vital profession upon its proper ground, a departure from all iniquity, yet how frequently does a party-spirit warp the judgment of men, so as to make them believe it scarcely possible that they can be christians, can really depart from iniquity, whose belief happens to differ, in what they deem a material point, from their own? To find what they consider as fundamental truths, settled by high authority and receiving the sanction of long acquiescence, called in question, debated, and given up as erroneous, creates an irritation which is apt to lead to harsh reflections and unjustifiable conclusions. It will be easily understood that I allude to a discourse, lately delivered in this city, before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, and committed to the press, in which some severe strictures are passed upon us, directly and by name.
The author, whom I do not personally know, appears to be a man of sense and erudition, and on several subjects, where his prejudices do not interfere, reasons in a manly, liberal, and convincing manner. He urges, with great propriety, the superiority of the light of revelation to that of reason, assigning, nevertheless, to the powers of the human
mind their proper office in investigating and judg ing of the things revealed. In his own strong language (page 30), "To study the sacred oracles for ourselves, and in the midst of the dust of contention, in despite of the prejudices of education and of party, to elicit the true meaning of the Holy Ghost, requires an ardent love of truth, an unwearied attention, unshaken fortitude, and invincible perseverance." In all this we perfectly agree with him; and, presuming that he did not mean by the expression, "for ourselves," to confine the privilege of research, or the qualifications necessary to render it effectual, to those of his own denomination or his own order, we lay equal claim to them, not without hope of using them to equal advantage.
But he has obtruded something into our creed which he calls idolized reason, to which we are as much strangers as himself. Idols of every kind are our abhorrence; and we reject them under every form, whether that of reason overstepping its proper province, or of articles and confes. sions claiming an authority which we believe belongs to the scriptures alone, interpreted by a sound understanding. We might be justly charged with an idolatry of reason, if, as our author uncandidly insinuates, we invested it with "the high office of deciding what doctrines of scripture are to be received, and what not." This we utterly disclaim. But we do strenuously contend, that when any doctrine is proposed to us (no matter from what authority), reason may and ought to decide whether it be a doctrine of scripture or not;