Letters from Mary Dana (1845) Letter 12

Posted


L E T T E R X I I
INSTABILITY

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does not necessarily agree with the full content of this letter, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]

MY DEAR SIR,

You have pronounced me “unstable,” and perhaps there are many of my other relatives and friends who are at this very moment applying to me the same injurious epithet. But my experience and observation, during my journey through life thus far, have convinced me that the possession of an inquiring, honest, independent mind—especially if such a mind be connected with an ardent temperament—will nearly always bring upon its possessor, at some time or other of his life, the charge of instability. Progress is emphatically the law of such a man’s being.

Now, if, in childhood, he, as most others do, receives his opinions upon trust, in all probability the time will come when he will change those opinions. If, unfortunately, from the ardor of his feelings, or some peculiar circumstances of his life, he makes them known to the world before he has sufficiently examined and compared them with other and opposite opinions, he has the mortifying task before him of acknowledging himself to have been in error. But the truly honest mind will not be deterred, by any feelings of mortification, from avowing any change, which, after mature deliberation, may have taken place; especially when it is considered that such a change is not always a mark of folly. There is an old Italian saying, which has passed into a proverb, with which such a many may comfort himself—il sabio muda conscio, il nescio no. [1]

It is often the case that a man may never have occasion to suspect his opinions, till providential circumstances place them before him in a new and startling light, and he sees defects and errors which had always remained hidden before. Then, if he be a man of the right stamp, he will march boldly up to the difficulty, and stare it in the face. Perhaps, upon close inspection, what appeared to be spots and blemishes will turn out to be only shadows upon a bright surface—shadows created by some external objects, which will disappear when those objects are removed, and leave the surface unsullied and glorious as before. Or, it may be, he will find that they are stains which cannot be removed; indicative of unsoundness in the material itself.

Free inquiry is, in general, no friend to old ideas and associations. And it behoves us to be cautious how, with ruthless hands, we remove the old landmarks, and lose sight of the natural boundaries and limits set for the human mind. But, on the other hand, those who have fettered themselves with human pledges, and imprisoned themselves within the boundaries of human creeds and systems, will find it extremely difficult, nay, almost impossible, to burst those fetters, however galling, or overstep those boundaries, however narrow and uncomfortable. They will even find it difficult to give due credit to the motives of those who can no longer remain thus fettered and imprisoned—who have made the effort, and freed themselves from bondage.

And here I cannot too earnestly enforce upon those who are intrusted with the training of youthful minds, the vast importance of giving them every opportunity and assistance in the candid and thorough examination of the various systems of Theology, professed throughout the world. Such a course will, at least, teach them caution in the formation and expression of their views, and it may save them from much future trouble and perplexity. Such an examination, taking place in early life, beneath the watchful eye of pure affection, will ever be a source of satisfaction to all concerned, provided that examination has been a thorough and candid one. Let every system of faith be brought to the test of Scripture, and not alone the faith professed by our progenitors.

If parents do not even allow their children to hear the opinions of those who differ from them; if, on the contrary, they anxiously and sedulously keep them in the dark; if, more especially, they ever let it be discovered that they dread and fear any freedom of inquiry—they may rest assured that they are likely to defeat the very ends at which they aim. They cannot always hold the veil before their children’s eyes. The parent bird cannot always keep its offspring in the nest. The human mind loves freedom, and will not always consent to be fettered. The time may come when opinions, which are merely the result of education, which have been taken upon trust, which have never stood the test of free inquiry, and comparison with other opinions,—the time, I say, may come, when these opinions shall be shaken. Then, a strong and unyielding foundation may be absolutely necessary to keep the whole fabric of faith from falling like the house which was built upon the sand.

Oh, it will then be a great mercy if the entire structure do not crumble into absolute ruin, never to be built again. It will be a great mercy, if, amid the general wreck, enough of the pure, uncrumbled material can be saved for the erection of another, and a more enduring structure. Such a result would be happy indeed. The new edifice of faith would perhaps be less imposing, because more simple, than the former one, but it would be not the less beautiful and valuable. On the contrary, no mind could estimate, no words could express its superior value. Its beautiful simplicity and unusual symmetry would never cease to delight its fortunate possessor. Built of solid stone, and founded upon a rock, the rains might descend, and the floods come, and the winds blow, and beat upon that house, and it would not fall, because founded on a rock.

You remark: “Yours is not the first, not the second, nor even the third case in which I have been called to mourn the fulfilment of God’s awful prophecy in the persons of my own friends. Some valued friends have already proved that they were ‘given up to strong delusion, to believe a lie,’ by professing that other form of Anti-Christ more suited to the constitution of their minds—called Popery. Widely as they seem to differ, they are, when sifted, varied developments of the same enmity to God’s wonderful yet simple way. My own mode of accounting for it is, that it has not pleased God to enlighten them with his Holy Spirit.”

To what “awful prophecy” do you allude in the first part of this extract? Is it that of being given over to strong delusion, to believe a lie? I suppose it must be. A little further on you say, that “it has not pleased God to enlighten them,” that is, those who do not think as you do, “with his Holy Spirit.” This is quite a flattering unction for a man to lay to his soul, I am willing to acknowledge. It would be a very convenient mode of settling differences of opinion, if we could only be certain who has the Spirit, and who has not. But there is the rub. If we could only decide upon some one living human being like ourselves, who, we were very sure, was under this special influence, whom we could consult, to whom we could explain the minutest shade of difference in our opinions—who could patiently listen to all we have to say, and give us precise answers, not to be mistaken—our differences might all be speedily and satisfactorily adjusted. Not one of us would object to making him the umpire between us. We could appeal to this infallible guide upon every topic which has ever divided the Christian world, and he would settle the matter at once. None of us would then object to having a “Pope.” How delightful it would be to have such a guide at every step of our progress! He would tell us exactly what our Lord meant when he said, “My Father is greater than I,” and “of mine own self I can do nothing.” If we differed concerning any of his own sayings, he would at once tell us precisely what his meaning was, and say to one, you are right,—and to another, you are wrong.

But, unfortunately, such a thing cannot be. We are not living in the times of the apostles. There is no Paul to whom a Christian church can write for information upon any particular point. The miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost to certain favored individuals are no longer to be expected. In regard to this, all of us are upon a perfect equality. Therefore it becomes not any man to say, that such and such a person has not the Holy Spirit. It is an arrogant claim, which I, for one, am not willing to admit; nor will it, I venture to say, be admitted by others who differ from you. When I plainly perceive the fruits of the Spirit—”love, joy, peace, long suffering, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance”—I joyfully acknowledge its existence. So far as we, frail and erring creatures, can venture to judge from evidence, I judge from what I see.

But, in regard to matters of opinion, the case is altered. Of all the millions in the world who differ in opinion, what one man possesses the greatest share of the Holy Spirit? All equally claim it; whose claims are the best? Why may not I have it as well as you? I ask for it, I wait for it, why may I not possess it? The bare assertion of another that my neighbor is not enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is, in my view, a poor reason for believing it to be so. Because your neighbor cannot see as you do, you insist upon it, that God has blinded his eyes, that seeing he may see, and not perceive. Ought any one but the Searcher of hearts himself to attempt the application of such a text? Ought a mortal to presume to apply it to his fellow mortal? If the actions of the life give evidence of the dominion of evil principles, we cannot help forming a judgment of the state of the heart—we are allowed to judge of men by their fruits. But with the religious opinions of others we have nothing to do in the way of judgment and condemnation. Our business lies with ourselves. We may think others wrong, but let us take care how we judge them harshly, and without hesitation declare that they belong to “Anti-Christ.” Let us see to it that we are in the right; let us strain every nerve to arrive at the right spot; and “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”

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


Endnotes:

1. A wise man changes his mind, a fool never. Back to top