Introductory Lecture

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Lectures on The Principles of Unitarianism
Lecture 1 – (By J. S. Hyndman, 1824)

[Please note that Spirit & Truth Fellowship International does not necessarily agree with the full content of this lecture, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]

Acts 28:22
But we desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest: for as concerning this sect, we know that every where it is spoken against.

Christianity for many years after its first introduction was the object of detestation. It was decidedly opposed to the prejudices and predispositions of Jew and Gentile, and directly hostile to the vices of both. In its nature and design it was congenial to none of those long-established and fondly-cherished notions of political glory which had been associated with the name of Messiah by the former; and its doctrines presented nothing that suited that high-towering and infinitude-grasping spirit of speculation which distinguished the systems of the latter.

The mean circumstances and ignominious death of our religion’s founder, the illiterate character of his disciples, and the wide contrariety of his precepts to many of the darling passions and indulged propensities of human nature, were considered as evidences of its fanatical character too strong to be counterbalanced by any opposite proof. Not countenanced by the honourable, the learned, and the powerful, it was esteemed a system fit only for little and vulgar minds, the dream of the mad devotees of superstition, or the offspring of imposture and presumption. And it was no doubt unhesitatingly thought that it would quickly fall into that degradation and insignificance from which it was conceived to have sprung. Mankind were then as they are now more inclined to adhere blindly and tenaciously to the dictates of their ancestors, and indolently to yield to the swaying impulse of early attachments, and to pronounce with dogmatism, rashness, and fury, upon that which waged war with their settled principles and unfounded opinions, than seriously, calmly, and impartially to examine the merits of a propounded system, or allow themselves to weigh the evidence that could be brought forward in its defence.

With regard to no denomination of the Christian world at the present day can the description of the treatment that Christianity met with at its first establishment be applied with so much truth, as to that sect under the standard of which we range ourselves. “Bigotry ceases to be odious so long as it confines its hostility to us.” Our principles and our characters are branded with every epithet that implies presumption and impiety.

Many, however, as our enemies are; rude and severe as are their attacks; we do by no means wish to ward them off by any compromise of our principles, or by any endeavour to shew that they mistake the extent of the difference that subsists between our sentiments and theirs. This would, indeed, be dastardly, dishonest, puerile, and vain. It certainly does appear evident that the systems do oppose one another as to the proper object of religious worship, supreme love, adoration, gratitude, and praise; and each presents a different view of the character and government of God, the capacities, the duties, and the hopes of man. They are, in some great respects, different religions.

That our doctrines should be warmly and firmly opposed, is only what a sense of duty in Trinitarians naturally prompts to and demands. But surely it must appear rational and incumbent that we should give a mutual examination to the systems we respectively hold, especially as the points between us are of such acknowledgedly vast and unspeakable importance. What can be the foundation of a difference so very great as that upon which we stand? The question is one which the singularity of the circumstance naturally suggests; and sound reason can never scowl at that course of investigation which might lead to a satisfactory solution of it.

Christianity once appeared to Paul in the same light that Unitarianism does to many at this moment. Now, however, his prepossessions are gone, and the voice of prejudice is hushed. Now he is as fully convinced of Christianity’s truth as he had been of its falsehood. What then can be more evident than this, that under certain states of mind truth may seem its antipode, and a confidence be manifested as to the correctness of perceptions that are really false? The mind, like the external eye, which must be in a healthful condition for the proper discharge of its functions, should be devoid of every thing that may tinge with an imaginary deceitful hue the objects subjected to its inspection.

And if, under the direction of sound reason, you are not determined as much as possible to divest yourselves of sectarian prejudgments and likings, in your attempts to discover real Christianity, you are certainly no lovers of truth, no friends to the interests of man, no regarders of Heaven’s authority. Moreover, if you set out with a determination to receive nothing but what shall accord with your own present views of things, you are likely to receive no real good, and perhaps much harm. You may meet with that which contradicts your sentiments, and these sentiments may be on the side of truth. But if you have such a determination, though your creed may be right, your faith is wrong, especially if it lead you to uncharitableness to your opponents. On the other hand, you may meet with that which contradicts your sentiments; you may reject it with abhorrence, and in doing so, you may think your heart very much established with grace so as not to be “carried away with every wind of doctrine;” and all may be but an indication of party spirit or proud conceit, and all may amount to nothing but “being wise in your own eyes.”

From the period of the apostle’s conversion till now that we find him addressed as in our text, the venom of malignity had been no doubt abundantly spit upon him. The diabolical monster, persecution, kept his maddened eye fixed upon Christianity’s humble disciples, and his weapons whetted and unsheathed for their destruction. The Gentile scoffed and the Jew gnashed his teeth at the mention of Jesus’ name. The outcry of imposture in Christianity, and of criminality of character in its espousers, made the world to ring. Some, however, it would appear, had thought that popular representation was not always correct; that the dogmatic charge of ‘heresy’ was no certain proof of error in those who were accused of it. Observation had probably taught them that a good cause and a bad name are very frequently companions, and wisely they concluded that the only rational method of ascertaining the nature and merits of the apostle’s cause was to hear from himself the outlines and the evidences of his system: “We desire to hear of thee.”

“The rage for proselytism is indeed one of the curses of the world,” Well-regulated zeal, however, for the propagation of truth is laudable; and every one who has a just and enlightened view of the character and will of God must esteem it an imperative duty to use his utmost exertions for the subversion of error, especially if the sentiments he opposes are of a kind naturally fitted to cloud the moral splendour of the attributes of the Deity; to produce ideas and feelings in the mind that sap the foundations of peace and happiness; or that have a direct or remote tendency to diminish in the soul the love of God, and consequently to annihilate from the mind the grand motives to virtue.

Now the tenets of the current theology, we do seriously consider to be very erroneous indeed, and we think they are not calculated to exert a happy influence over the mind. This opinion of ours does by no means involve us in what would unquestionably be an unjust and uncharitable judgment, viz. that Trinitarians in general are not men of as great moral worth and real piety as Unitarians. In proportion as pure and pious sentiments are blended with those of an opposite kind, the influence of the latter is happily subverted; and we cannot hesitate to say that in many respects the common theology does not absolutely exclude from its system the benevolence and the justice of the Deity, though we cannot at the same time but think that the manner in which these attributes are viewed divests them of much of their power of sweet attraction, and of much of their fitness to raise in the mind an elevated, sublime, and delightful piety. It is also true that doctrines are seldom fully pursued to their consequences, and the power of naturally good dispositions is not easily destroyed by foreign influence. Thus, notwithstanding the comparatively few instances of the manifested pernicious effect of the popular creed, it is our duty as Christians to endeavour to expose the corruptions that prevail, and “to contend earnestly for the faith that (we conceive) was once delivered unto the saints.”

In the present day all honest attempts of a Unitarian to establish what he conceives to be scriptural truth are execrated with hate and fury; and, in fact, the language of some would lead a plain man, not aware of the madness of party spirit, to suppose that the grand aim of a Unitarian’s exertions to disseminate his principles is the overthrow of all religion, and the subversion of the very foundation of virtue.

It is, however, by no means surprising that such treatment should be ours. It would indeed be more surprising if it were not. For when one has deeply imbibed any religious sentiment, belief in which he is made to conceive as necessary to salvation, so firm a hold does it take of his understanding, so completely associated and embodied does it become with every other serious thought that passes in his mind, and such a peculiar direction does it give to his view of things, that he is naturally led to identify the rejection of his particular dogma with the abandonment of Christianity itself. He cannot express his pity, indignation, and astonishment, at the strange infatuation or wicked obstinacy of those who cannot see with his eyes, so as to appreciate the force of the arguments on which his sentiments are founded. This prepossession for his favorite dogma is such as to lead him to find it either in statement or by implication on passages of Scripture where others can find no trace of it, or where it is really contradicted, and in such portions of scripture, the creature of his ungoverned imagination, sober reason attempts in vain to destroy. Of course he thinks himself justified in charging his opponents with being perverters of Heaven’s explicit word, perverse disputants of corrupt minds, contemning revelation with a fearless presumption and daring effrontery, and distinguished for every impious and detestable principle of action.

Be it, however, remembered by you, my Trinitarian brethren, that of the justness of such judgments you must one day answer at the bar of God. Accusations of a nature so serious should, you cannot but know, be brought forward with the utmost caution by one person or body of professing Christians against another; and the character and conduct of a party should never be pronounced from the supposed manifestation of unbecoming conduct in a few of those who compose it. It should never be forgotten that sectarian antipathies and zeal are apt to hurry one into furious, false, and unguarded declamation on very insignificant grounds, but which the operation of such principles magnifies to an enormous degree.

I trust you would not, Trinitarian Christians, in your zeal for purity of faith, wish to destroy or even impair those sentiments of piety and benevolence which are the chief objects of commendation in that system you defend, and to promote which is the grand end of Christianity. In contending the modes of faith, you would not wish to lose goodness of heart and that warm benevolence without which, though you should give your body to be burned in defense of your creed, you are nothing. But is not charitable judgment of your opponents a most important branch of benevolence? We think, that in nothing have Christians so widely departed from their religion, as in this particular. We read with astonishment and horror the history of the church; and sometimes when we look back on the fires of persecution, and the zeal of Christians in building up walls of separation, and in giving up one another to perdition, we feel as if we were reading the records of an infernal, rather than a heavenly kingdom. An enemy to our religion, if we asked to describe a Christian, would, with some show of reason, depict him as an idolater of his own distinguishing opinions, covered with badges of party, shutting his eyes on the virtues, and his ears on the arguments, of his opponents, arrogating all excellence to his own sect, and all saving power to his own creed; sheltering under the name of pious zeal the love of domination, the conceit of infallibility, and the spirit of intolerance, and trampling on men’s rights, under the pretence of saving their souls.

We can hardly conceive of a plainer obligation on beings of our frail and fallible nature, who are instructed in the duty of candid judgment, than to abstain from condemning men of apparent conscientiousness and sincerity, who are chargeable with no crime but that of differing from us in the interpretation of the Scriptures, and differing too, on topics of great and acknowledged obscurity. We are astonished at the hardihood of those, who, with Christ’s warnings sounding in their ears, take on them the responsibility of making creeds for his church, and cast out professors of virtuous lives for imagined errors for the guilt of thinking for themselves. We know that zeal for truth is the cover of this usurpation of Christ’s prerogative; but we think that zeal for truth, as it is called, is very suspicious except in men, whose improvements in humility, mildness, and candour, give them a right to hope that their views are more just than those of their neighbours.

We are accustomed to think much of the difficulties attending religious inquiries; difficulties springing from the slow development of our minds, from the power of early impressions, from the state of society, from human authority, from the general neglect of the reasoning powers, from the want of just principles of criticism, and of important helps to interpreting Scripture, and from various other causes. We find that on no subject have men, and even good men, engrafted so many strange conceits, wild theories, and fictions of fancy, as on religion; and remembering, as we do, that we ourselves are sharers of the common frailty, we dare not assume infallibility in the treatment of our fellow Christians, or encourage in common Christians, who have little time for investigation, the habit of denouncing and contemning other denominations, perhaps more enlightened and virtuous than their own. Charity, forbearance, a delight in the virtues of different sects, a backwardness to censure and condemn, these are virtues, which, however, poorly practised by us, we admire and recommend; and we would rather join ourselves to the church in which they abound, than to any other communion, however elated with the belief of its own orthodoxy, however strict in guarding its creed, however burning with zeal against imagined error. As you wish then to obtain the approbation of God, avoid yourselves and discourage in others all that approaches to malignant declamation. Be not among the number of those who speak much about what they know little or nothing, and who ignobly allow themselves to be carried along in the tide of current feeling. Be not of the number of those whose only acquirement is a few unconnected, vague, and flimsy notions of Christianity, which they have taken up without the least examination, because their fathers were content with them, or because they are current and held sacred by the people around. Judge not of the soundness and value of opinions from the countenance and support they generally receive. “Learn from the best example and the highest authority, not to turn a deaf ear to reason, because the many call it heresy.”

And my Unitarian brethren, knowing that the interests of truth are patronized by the Ruler of the moral world, who can remove all obstructions to its progress and render all events subservient to its success, and more triumphant and glorious in their issues than human anticipation could have embraced; knowing that none can stop the career of honest investigation, or say, halt! to the march of intellect; convinced that the tyranny of man cannot confine the subtle essence of truth; that “truth is omnipotent, and will prevail,” let us rejoice in the prospect of that glorious era when superstition and error shall be expelled from our mental region; when truth shall assert her right to universal dominion, and away a majestic sceptre over the mind of man; “when Jehovah shall be one, and his name one.”

“The sophist may assail and the dogmatist browbeat, the interested may slander the ignorant condemn;” but if the flame of serious, solemn inquiry be once well kindled, it will assuredly burn to ashes that fabric of mysticism which has been reared by “the learning of some ages, the ignorance of others, the superstition of weak and the craft of designing men.” Meanwhile, “let us await the slow operation of time in extinguishing prejudices which time alone has produced, conscious that bodies of men are peculiarly tenacious of their habits of thinking, and that it is wisely ordained that the conquest achieved by just and enlightened principles should be firm and durable in proportion to the tardiness of its progress.”

[Please note that Spirit & Truth Fellowship International does not necessarily agree with the full content of this lecture, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]