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In a word, a great and magnificent plan of Divine administration is opened to us in the Gospel of Christ; and nothing is omitted that can impress mankind with the persuasion of their being all, in the strictest sense, subjects of the moral government of God.
THOUGH the bounds of this Discourse allow us to take only an imperfect view of the principles of Christian doctrine, yet the hints which have been given lay a sufficient foundation for appealing to every impartial mind, whether the knowledge and belief of such principles be not intimately connected with the improvement, and, by consequence, with the happiness of man? 1 reason now with such as admit, that virtue is the great source both of improvement and happiness. Let them lay what stress they please upon the authority of conscience, and upon the force and evidence of its dictates; can they refuse to allow that the natural tendency of the principles which I have mentioned, is to support those dictates, and to confirm that authority; to excite, on various occasions, the most useful sentiments; to provide additional restraints from vice, and additional motives to every virtue? Who dares pronounce, that there is no case in which conscience stands in need of such assistance to direct, where there is so much uncertainty and darkness; and to prompt, where there is so much feebleness and irresolution, and such a fatal proneness to vice and folly?
But how good soever the tendency of religious principles may be, some will still call in question their actual significancy, and influence on life. This tendency is by various causes defeated. Between the belief of religious principles and a correspondent
practice, it will be alleged that frequent experience shews there is no necessary connection; and that therefore the propagation of the one, cannot give us any assurance of proportionable improvements following in the other.- This, in part, is granted to be true; as we admit that religious knowledge and belief are susceptible of various degrees, before they arrive at that real Christian faith which the Scripture represents as purifying the heart. But though the connection between principle and practice be not necessary and invariable, it will not, I suppose, be denied, that there is some connection. Here then one avenue to the heart is opened. If the tendency of Religious Knowledge be good, wisdom must direct, and duty oblige us to cultivate it. For tendency will, at least in some cases, rise into effect; and, probably, in more cases than are known and observed by the world. Besides the distinguished examples of true religion and virtue, which have, more or less, adorned every age of the Christian æra, what numbers may there be in the more silent and private scenes of life, overlooked by superficial observers of mankind, on whose hearts and lives religious principles have the most happy influence? Even on loose and giddy minds, where they are far from accomplishing their full effect, their influence is, frequently not altogether lost. Impressions of religion often check vice in its career. They prevent it from proceeding its utmost length; and though they do not entirely reform the offender, they serve to maintain order in society. Persons who are now bad, might probably have been worse without them, and the world have suffered more from unrestrained licentiousness. They often sow latent seeds of goodness in the heart, which proper
circumstances and occasions afterwards ripen; though the reformation of the offender may not be so conspicuous as his former enormities have been. From the native tendency of religious belief, there is reason to conclude, that those good effects of it are not so rare as some would represent them. By its naturé and tendency, we can better judge of its effects, than by observations drawn from a supposed experience, which often is narrow in its compass,, and fallacious in its conclusions.
The actual influence of principle and belief of mankind admits of clear illustration from uncontested matter of fact. They who hold the good effects of Christian principles to be so inconsiderable, as to render the propagation of them of small importance, will be at no loss to give us instances of corrupt principles of belief having had the most powerful influence on the world. Loud complaints we hear from this quarter of the direful effects which superstition and enthusiasm have produced; of their having poisoned the tempers, and transformed the manners of men; of their having overcome the strongest restraints of law, of reason, and humanity. Is this then the case, that all principles, except good ones, are of such mighty energy? Strange! that false religion should be able to do so much, and true religion so little; that belief so powerful in the one case, should be so impotent in the other. No impartial inquirer, surely, can entertain this opinion. The whole history of mankind shows that their religious tenets and principles, of whatever nature they be, are of great influence in forming their character, and directing their conduct. The mischief which false principles have done, affords a good argument to guard care
fully against error; but as it is a proof of what belief can do, it gives ground to hope the more from it, when rightly directed. The same torrent which, when it is put out of its natural course, overflows and lays waste a country, adorns and enriches it, when running in its proper channel. If it be alleged that superstition is likely to be more powerful in its effects than truth, because it agrees better with the follies and corruptions of the world, we may oppose to this, on the other hand, that truth has the Divine blessing and the countenance of Heaven on its side. Let us always hope well of a cause that is good in itself, and beneficial to mankind. Truth is mighty, and will prevail. Let us spread the incorruptible seed as widely as we can, and trust in God that he will give the increase. Having thus shown the importance of Religious Knowledge to mankind in the way of improvement, let us,
In the second place, Consider it in the light of consolation; as bringing aid and relief to us amidst the distresses of life. Here religion incontestibly triumphs; and its happy effects in this respect furnish a strong argument to every benevolent. mind for wishing them to be farther diffused throughout the world. For without the belief and hope afforded by divine Revelation, the circumstances of man are extremely forlorn, He finds himself placed here as a stranger in a vast universe, where the powers and operations of Nature are very imperfectly known; where both the beginnings and the issues of things are involved in mysterious darkness; where he is unable to discover, with any certainty, whence he sprung, or for what purpose he was brought into this
state of existence; whether he be subjected to the government of a mild, or of a wrathful ruler; what construction he is to put on many of the dispensations of his providence; and what his fate is to be when he departs hence. What a disconsolate situation to a serious enquiring mind! The greater degree of virtue it possesses, its sensibility is likely to be the more oppressed by this burden of labouring thought. Even though it were in one's power to banish all uneasy thought, and to fill up the hours of life with perpetual amusement, life so filled up would, upon. reflection, appear poor and trivial. But these are far from being the terms upon which man is brought into this world. He is conscious, that his being is frail and feeble; he sees himself beset with various dangers; and is exposed to many a melancholy apprehension, from the evils which he may have to encounter, before he arrives at the close of life. In this distressed condition, to reveal to him such discoveries of the Supreme Being, as the Christian religion affords, is to reveal to him a Father and a Friend; is to let in a ray of the most cheering light upon the darkness of the human estate. He who was before a destitute orphan, wandering in the inhospitable desert, has now gained a shelter from the bitter and inclement blast. He now knows to whom to pray, and in whom to trust; where to unbosom his sorrows, and from what hand to look for relief.
It is certain that when the heart bleeds from some wound of recent misfortune nothing is of equal efficacy with religious comfort. It is of power to enlighten the darkest hour, and to assuage the severest woe, by the belief of divine favour, and the prospect of a blessed immortality. In such hopes the mind