Letters from Mary Dana (1845) Letter 18

Posted


L E T T E R X V I I I
AN EXTRACT

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does not necessarily agree with the full content of this letter, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]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

I believe that you speak the real feelings of your heart when you say, that you “sincerely and prayerfully mourn” that I should be “a victim” to what you deem a “strong delusion” and “a lie.” And you say, “I mourn the more that your constitutional romance of disposition seems to make your case the more hopeless. You pursue with martyr spirit the abstract idea of Truth, or else you would be in no hurry to proclaim your adherence to Anti-Christ, when you know you must harrow the feelings of all your friends, and are taking a step which may bring your honored and aged father in sorrow to his tomb, or to exclaim with the Psalmist, ‘O that I had died for thee.’“

I am deeply pained and grieved, my dear Sir, that any of my friends should be offended with me for venturing to follow the dictates of my conscience; but my grief and pain are entirely unmixed with any feelings of self-reproach. If, when we appear together at the bar of God, they could assume my responsibility; if I were very sure of this, I might feel willing to subscribe to just what my friends assert to be the truth of the Bible. But I am afraid to do this. Who, of all my numerous friends, will take the responsibility? Who will ensure my safety, if I give up my own opinion, and subscribe to theirs? Will you do it? Alas! I fear I shall find no such convenient friend. God know that I am able to form some opinion for myself; he likewise knows that I think it wrong not to do this to the extent of the abilities he has given me; and he certainly will, and he certainly ought to punish me if I do it not.

In regard to truth, you go on to say: “Truth in its abstract has always been an idol with visionaries. The unclouded mind views it as a good only by its consequences. When you speak of the Truth of God as necessary to eternal happiness, I can understand it; when truth is divulged which will add to our temporal ease I can appreciate its value; but if I hear a man proclaim and devote himself to a truth in physics which he acknowledges can be of no practical value, or an atheist worshipping as an idol his ideal creed, while admitting that at the worst the Christian will suffer no more than he, I place them both in the same category of visionary and senseless dreamers. Now, let me ask you, if you believe any soul ever went to hell, or ever will, for believing Christ to be God? Supposing it then a delusion, what good will you effect by a hasty avowal of sentiments which can add no security to a soul, and may shake the safety of some, and will turn the joy of many into mourning, their smiles into tears? How many ‘passing under the rod,’ and soothed and comforted by your muse, will feel they have tasted but the bitter ashes of the fabled fruit; have been lured from their grief by a falsity, and comforted by a fraud! To return to that word Truth. If Paul had died to prove his faith in Christ with the noble hope of saving souls, that would indeed be an object worthy of the sacrifice. But suppose he had died to prove what is equally true, that Prussic acid is poison, and for no other end than the establishment of the fact; he would have been justly called a madman. Do you take my illustration and distinction? Such is your case in avowing your new creed.”

I am no metaphysician, and very little of a logician, and therefore, for the life of me, I cannot appreciate the soundness of your argument, or the justness of the parallel you have drawn between Paul’s supposed case, and my real one. If St. Paul had been required to subscribe to a creed asserting that Prussic acid was no poison; if he felt that he was tacitly acknowledging before the world what he believed to be untrue every time he joined in a prayer or sang a hymn, every time he took his seat with his brethren as a member of their fraternity, every time, especially, he sang a doxology; if, moreover, he was of the opinion that the general belief in regard to Prussic acid was producing general evil; then I think our cases would have been parallel cases, and it clearly seems to me it would have been his duty to do as I have done.

If he had joined a society whose fundamental article of faith was that Prussic acid was no poison; if he had been generally and prominently known as a member of that society, and if he discovered that Prussic acid was a poison, and thought, moreover, that the society were doing harm, then he would have been bound to leave them, and to say why he did it; especially if they would not allow him to withdraw quietly, which the members of such societies, and communities in general, are not very apt to do. If, on the other hand, there had been no such society in the world, and the general belief that Prussic acid was no poison had been perfectly harmless, Paul would indeed have been a fool and a madman to volunteer to die for such a fact; but I do not see how there could have been the least occasion for his death. It is only when tests are required of men that they are in any danger of losing their lives of opinion’s sake.

Your argument is founded upon what I deem exceedingly erroneous premises, and therefore it is no argument to me. In the first place, you take it for granted that a belief in the doctrine of Christ’s supreme divinity, and consequently in that of the Trinity, is, if a delusion, a perfectly harmless one; to this I do not agree. I think, as I have before said, that the habit of assenting to contradictory propositions, such as that three are one, and that the finite and the infinite meet in the same individual, is a habit most injurious to the mind, and leads either to credulity or infidelity. It opens a spacious door for every absurdity. These doctrines are as contradictory to reason as the doctrine of transubstantiation. They are quite as contrary to our experience. So far, then, we do not agree in the premises from which we start.

You make no distinction, in the second place, between one who is ignorantly subscribing to an error, and one who does it, knowing or believing it to be an error. Here is a radical distinction, which ought not to have been lost sight of. If my mind had never been turned to the subject, and I had lived and died worshipping Christ as the Supreme God, I should have been perhaps guiltless; my error would have been involuntary; but the moment my attention has been awakened to the point, and, upon thorough investigation, I have decided that it is an error, my moral attitude is changed. [1] If, under my new circumstances; I still remained connected with a church which I knew would not receive me if they imagined what was my belief in regard to Christ; if I still continued to sit with them at the Lord’s table when I was certain they would shut me out if they knew my sentiments, should I not be acting the part of a hypocrite? I leave the decision to every candid mind. If you do not agree to this, I can only say your code of ethics is very different from mine.

If there were no human creeds in the world—if churches would only require a belief in the only infallible creed, the one which our Master left us, which is contained in the Holy Bible, and not an assent to this or that interpretation of the original one,—then we might keep our opinions to ourselves. But as the church of my fathers, to which I belonged, has a human creed, and I find I cannot conscientiously assent to it, how could I remain there, and feel that I was pursuing an honest, independent course? Unless, indeed, they would have allowed me to remain there after a candid confession of my change of sentiments, and this they could not have done consistently with their confession of faith. No creed but the Bible, is now my motto, and I hope it will be till I die. And I am becoming more and more attached to the simple, congregational mode of church government. On this point I am rejoiced to know that you and I perfectly agree. I am learning to stand more and more aloof from any extensive combination of my fellow men for religious, or for any other purposes. To single churches and single societies I do not object; their organization is simple, and abuses are easily corrected; but the moment their leaders begin to combine, I am afraid of them. They wield a power that is dangerous. Too much consolidation is never to be desired, where imperfect man is at the head of affairs. It is not best to pledge ourselves to bodies, which, almost without our knowledge, may carry us whither we would not wish to go. I am well aware that “union is strength;” but I am by no means certain that the strength resulting from union will always be well directed. If I were sure of this, I would rejoice at the spirit of combination, which is a striking feature of our times. But, as things are, such combinations are to be approached with caution, and always narrowly watched. They are too often under the entire control of a few leading spirits, whose love of power grows in proportion to its acquirement, and increases with their success. [2] I have seen melancholy proofs that very large bodies sometimes go wrong with an impetus that is perfectly irresistible and overwhelming, crushing the feeble arms which are raised to impede their progress, and carrying with them even those who oppose them, in one general, headlong, hurrying mass. Nor can they always stop where they themselves intended.

But to return from this digression. I was speaking of human creeds. A man who subscribes to a creed enters into a solemn covenant. I have been accused of breaking my covenant engagements. I have broken my covenant, it is true. I entered into a solemn engagement to support and defend the doctrines held by the church with which I became united. But, when a person can no longer believe what he once believed, what is he to do? Is belief a voluntary thing? Can a person believe just what he chooses? How can I help believing that which I am convinced is true? The moment a man is convinced of the truth of any opinion, or set of opinions, they are his opinions. Persecution, torture, may compel him to retract them, but they are his opinions still, if he still remains convinced of their truth. Fire and the sword may make him a hypocrite, but they cannot change his opinions.

When I have before me evidence which convinces me that what I once thought true is not true, can I still believe it? And if I cannot still believe it, ought I still to profess it? Alas for the man who binds himself to support a human creed; a creed prepared by uninspired men! He may be placing himself in a melancholy position. I cannot more vividly portray his situation than by quoting the words of the Rev. Jared Sparks. He says: “Those persons who have bound themselves to a written system of faith, in the shape of a creed or confession, which they are resolved never to forsake, or which they engage by a solemn covenant always to support, as in the case of many clergymen, church-members, and professors in theological institutions; such persons cannot possibly expect or hope to gain anything by examining their opinions, and comparing them with those of others, and with the standard of the Scriptures. To change a single sentiment would be a violation of their covenant, and a crime. What conscientious man will allow the suspicion to enter his mind that anything can be wrong in a faith, which, in the most solemn manner, he has pledged his veracity to cherish and support? He may defend his adopted creed, and rally round the system to which he is chained, but he cannot go a step further. He cannot open his mind to a new truth, nor suffer himself to concede, that an opponent’s argument can have any weight, or his opinions any claim to respect. This would be to distrust the grounds of his own faith, and to betray the guilt of doubting, where he has made a sacred engagement never to doubt. What advantage can a person, thus bound and cramped, derive from an examination of religious subjects? The public may be benefitted by knowing his sentiments, and his mode of explaining and defending them; but, as for himself, his journey will be a circle, he will end where he began.”

Is it a question what one who has thus bound himself, perhaps inadvertently, and who afterwards changes his opinions, is to do? Can it be a question whether he ought to break his vow, or act the hypocrite? Is not a vow, which we find to be a bad one, better broken than kept? Each man must decide this question for himself.

This fact is certain, that such vows are too often taken without sufficient thought. Such vows are fearful things. Would to God I had never taken them; and I would sound a note of warning in the ears of all those who are still free. I beseech them to take care how they promise to maintain and defend any creed that is not expressed in the very words of the Bible, the only infallible standard.

[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. See Appendix Q. Back to top

2. That this was emphatically the case in the general councils of the church in former ages, and that it is also true of the general assemblies, conventions, indeed of all religious combinations of modern times, no one who is much acquianted with their history will probably deny. Thus the creeds which we are now required to subscribe,—such as the five Calvinistic points, which were drawn up at the famous Synod of Dort, were composed under the influence of party spirit, and adopted by the Church in consequence of votes of an excited majority. Back to top