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Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another. For in Jesus Christ, neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; bat faith which worketh by love-Rom. xiv. 19. Gal. v. 6.
[FIRST PRINTED IN 1784.]
MY DEAR FRIEND AND BROTHER,
You have more than once gently called upon me for the reasons which induced me to exercise my ministry as a Clergyman of the Church of England, rather than among the Dissenters, where my first religious connexions were formed, and with many of whom I still maintain a cordial friendship. Hitherto I have usually waved the subject, and contented myself with assuring you, in general terms, that as the preference I gave to the establishment was the result of serious, and, I trust, impartial iniquiry; so I had never seen reason to repent of it, no, not for a minute, since the day of my ordination. I now purpose to give you a more particular answer and as you are not the only person who has expressed a friendly surprise at my choice, I shall communicate my reasons from the press, that all my friends who have been at a loss to account for my conduct, may have such satisfaction as it is in my power to give them. I shall, however, keep you particularly in my eye, while I write, that a just sense of the candour and affection with which you have always treated me, may regulate my pen, and preserve me (if possible) from that harsh and angry spirit, into which writers upon controversial points are too often betrayed.
I confess, that, as in this business my conscience is clear in the sight of Him to whom alone I am properly accountable, I could wish still to continue silent, and submit to be a little misunderstood by some persons whose good opinion I prize, rather than trouble the public with what more immediately relates to myself. But something upon this subject seems expedient in the present day; not so much by way of apology for one or a few individuals, as with a view of obviating prejudices, and preventing, or at least abating, the unhappy effects of a party spirit.
There was a time when the Non-conformists groaned under the iron rod of oppression, and were exposed to fines, penalties, and imprisonment, as well as to cruel mockings, and the lawless rage of a rabble, for worshipping God according to the light of their consciences. Yet I apprehend their non-conformity was rather VOL. III.
the occasional and ostensible, than the real cause of the hard treatment they met with. The greater part of the non-conformist ministers of that day were the light and glory of the land. They were men full of faith and of the Holy Ghost; penetrated with a deep sense of the Redeemer's glory and love, and of the worth of souls. Their ministrations were accompanied with unction and power, and they were instrumental in turning many sinners from their evil ways. It is no wonder that the world hated such men; that snares were spread for their feet, their liberty abridged, and that many said, "Away with them, they are not worthy to live!" It is probable, that if these servants of the Most High could have enjoyed that freedom for their persons and assemblies, which, in answer to their prayers, is now possessed by those who bear the same name, they would have been well satisfied that the established church should have remained in peaceful possession of its own order and ritual. And several among them, not the lowest in repute for wisdom and piety, continued long to worship occasionally in the parish churches, after they had been rejected from them as preachers. But things were studiously carried against them with a high hand. The exaction of re-ordination, and the little time allowed for subscribing the book of Common-Prayer, which many of the ministers had not been able to procure when the law called for their assent to it, were two circumstances which greatly contributed to swell the Bartholomew-list. It was well known to some of the leaders in that unhappy business, that there were among the Non-conformists wise and moderate men, who were not disposed to quit their parochial cures, unless they were constrained by the harshest and most violent measures; such, therefore, were the measures they adopted.
It is our mercy to live in more quiet times. We are on all sides freed from restraints in religious concerns; and every person is at liberty to profess, preach, worship, or print, as he thinks proper. But it is still to be lamented, that they who are united upon the same foundations, and agree in the same important leading principles, should lay so much stress upon their circumstantial differences in sentiment, as to prevent the exercise of mutual love and forbearance; and that, instead of labouring in concert within their respective departments, to promote the common cause, they should be at leisure to vex and worry each other with needless disputation, and uncharitable censure. I hope, amongst us, the High Church principles which formerly produced unjustifiable and oppressive effects, are now generally exploded. But may we not lay a claim in our turn, to that moderation, candour, and tenderness, from our dissenting brethren which we cheerfully
exercise towards them? But as we (I think) are no longer the aggressors, so they seem no longer content to stand upon the defensive. We wish to join them with heart and hand, in supporting and spreading the great truths of the Gospel; and such as you, my friend, approve our aims, and rejoice with us, if God is pleased to give us success. But there are those among you, whose persons and general conduct we respect, from whom we do not find equal returns of good-will, because we cannot join with them in the support of a palladium which bears the name of the Dissenting Interest. I know not whether this phrase was in use a hundred years ago; but were I to meet with it as referring to that period, I should understand by it little more or less than the interest of the Redeemer's kingdom. At present, when I consider the various names, views, and sentiments which obtain among those who form this aggregate, styled the Dissenting Interest, I am at a loss what sense to put upon the term. May I not say, without offence, that it is at least a very heterogeneous body? May I not hope, without presumption, that though you and I are not agreed on the subject of Church Government, yet I am related to you by a much nearer and stronger tie than that which binds you to the Dissenting Interest? I confess, that so far as it is the interest of those who depreciate the person and blood of the Saviour, and deny the agency and influence of the Holy Spirit, or the total depravity of fallen man, so far I cannot (in a religious view) be a friend to it. On the other hand, so far as it regards those who love, avow, and preach the doctrines, experience, and practice, which both you and I include in our idea of the Gospel, so far I can truly say, though not a Dissenter myself, the Dissenting Interest is dear to my heart, and has a share in my daily prayers. And in this I am persuaded I speak the sentiments of many, both ministers and laymen, in the establishment. We are sorry, therefore, (at least I am sorry,) though not augry, when books are written, or declarations* (perhaps in the most solemn occasions of worship) unseasonably made, which seem not so much designed to confirm Dissenters in their own principles, as to place those who cannot accede to them in an unfavourable light; the ministers especially, who, according to some representations, must be supposed to be almost destitute of common sense, or else of common honesty.
When I write a letter, especially to a friend, I think myself released from that attention to method which I might observe if I was composing a treatise. As my heart dictates, my pen moves. I therefore hope you will bear with me if I do not come directly
* Some of these letters were written in the year 1777.