Letters from Mary Dana (1845) Letter 23

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L E T T E R X X I I I
ERRONEOUS PREMISES

[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does not necessarily agree with the full content of this letter, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]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 will next notice what you say in regard to the “absurdity” of believing Jesus a created Being, and yet “possessed by delegation of all the powers of the Godhead bodily.” “Now,” you go on to remark, “if one possess all the powers and attributes of God, he is God; for we can only conceive of God by his attributes.” Before, in such an oracular manner, you pronounce my faith “absurd,” you must convince myself and others that your position can be proved, and first, let us inquire whether you start upon fair premises.

I readily grant, that, from your premises, you might easily prove an absurdity. But you have first to prove that these premises are correct. So far as I am individually concerned, I do by no means admit them; nor, so far as I know, would they be admitted by any Unitarian upon earth. Unitarians believe, as the Scriptures teach, that their Master possessed “all the fulness of the Godhead bodily;” not, as you have rendered it, “all the powers of the Godhead.” And they understand this term, “the fulness of the Godhead,” not in an unlimited sense, but with the degree of limitation the subject seems to demand. They interpret one portion of Scripture by another, endeavoring to make every part harmonize with the general tenor of the whole book, just as they would, in fairness and candor, ascertain the meaning of the different portions of any other book. Therefore, when they read in Col. 2:9, “In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily,” They remember that in Eph. 3:19, Paul prayed that his Christian brethren might be filled with all the fulness of God. Here they find the very same expression, “all the fulness;” but, as they do not suppose that, if Paul’s prayer were answered, Christians would be equal with God, neither do they believe that because Christ was said to possess “all the fulness of the Godhead bodily,” he must therefore be God himself. It is true, that if Christians were filled with all the fulness of God, they would be one with God, as Christ and his Father were one; for Christ also prayed that Christians might be one, “even as we,” said he, “are one;” but in neither case do they make this oneness to signify personal identity; if they did it one case, they would have a right to do it in the other. But Paul, to make his meaning still more plain, and as if anticipating the mistakes of after ages, seems anxious to explain just what he meant by this expression, “the fulness of the Godhead.” He tells us in Col. 1:19, why and how it was that this fulness dwelt in Christ. “It pleased the Father,” says he, “that in him should all fulness dwell.”

So in regard to the phrase “all power;” it is to be used with the same kind of limitation, also keeping in view the declaration of our Saviour that this power was given to him.

If, my dear Sir, I approved of the habit, so common among the orthodox, of saying uncourteous thing of those whose sentiments I may be opposing, I might easily retort the charge which you have made. It would not be difficult to show that there is something very much like an absurdity in asserting that the Being to whom all power was given, possessed that power inherently, or was, in fact the very Being by whom the power was given; and that when all the fulness of the Godhead dwelt in Christ because it pleased the Father that it should be so, he possessed that fulness in his own nature, independently of his Father; or that the Being in whom another Being had placed all fulness, was the very Being who placed that fulness there. But I forbear; I would prefer not to follow the example you have set me in this matter. Two things only I ask of you, and of my friends in general. They are that I may be allowed the privilege of free inquiry, and be permitted to exercise the right of private judgment;—first principles of Protestantism;—principles for which the fathers of the Reformation were always ready to lay down their lives;—for which they toiled and bled;—which all Protestants ought most constantly and jealously to guard.

I used to boast of living in a free country; but, as long as we have sects who vote all who differ from them out of the pale of Christianity, our country is not free. That I have some cause for this remark, you certainly must acknowledge. You have more than once numbered me with the adherents of “Anti-Christ;” you have called my case “a hopeless one;” you have more than insinuated, that, unless I return to my former faith, and your present one, I shall be “left to perish;” you have classed me among those upon whom, as you assert, there is a fearful “woe” denounced; you have placed me among deists and infidels; you have announced my departure to one flank of “the grand army,” by which I suppose, you mean the army of “Anti-Christ;” and finally, you have numbered me among those “silly women,” who are easily “led away captive.” Now I say again, that as long as there are overwhelming sects, and extensive combinations of men, aye, even the majority of the Christian world, who, on account of some differences of opinion, cast entirely out of the pale of Christianity, and deny the name of Christian to those who professedly hold to Christ as their head,—I am right in asserting that my country is not free; for I know of no tyranny more potent, and no despotism more galling, than that of public opinion.

Why do we prize our bodily liberty, but that we may exert our bodily powers? But if we were allowed to take only a certain number of steps, and were obliged to take those steps only in certain direction, would that be liberty? Would it be worthy of the name? True, the limbs may be unfettered, we are at liberty to use them, but how? Exactly according to the dictation of another. Would that be liberty? Would that be freedom? Yet this is all the mental freedom you are willing to concede to me. Use your reason, you virtually tell me; take the Bible, read it for yourself; but if you come to any other conclusion than that which we think to be right you must of course be wrong. You did not search in the right way; you are without the influences of the Holy Spirit; you can only be right when you think just as we do.

Yes, my friend, you appear quite willing that I should read the Scriptures for myself, if I will only read them with your spectacles. But if I must understand the Bible exactly as you do, why you might as well take the Bible from me. Just give me your sense of it, and I need give myself no further trouble about it. [1] Why, my dear Sir, this is Popery in all its length and breadth. [2]

But our Master said, “search the Scriptures, for they are they which testify of me.” And those private Christians were commended who searched the Scriptures daily, to see whether those things which they were taught were true. How different is this from your real meaning when you direct us to the Bible. Considering that our religious teachers in these days are not inspired men, as the first teachers of Christianity were, the ground you take is very strange. You also say, search the Scriptures; but you say at the same time, beware of your conclusions; let me direct your inquiries, and control your final judgment. You give me leave to search the Scriptures, provided I find there just what you do; and if I cannot find those things, if I am not so fortunate as to understand with your understanding, you insist upon it that I have not searched aright. Is this freedom of inquiry? Is this the right of private judgment for which you, as a Protestant, contend? Is this the liberty you are so kind as to grant me? If it is, I want it not. If I must arrive at your conclusions, why should I take the trouble to search for myself? Why not save myself such an expenditure of time, such an amount of anxiety and fatigue, and such a waste of strength? You have searched the Bible; you are very sure you are right; if I should come to different conclusions, it would be certain I was wrong; therefore my wisest plan would be just to give up the whole business into your hands. But before I could be persuaded to adopt your conclusions, you must, as I have elsewhere said, guaranty that I shall not be called to account for my opinions at the last great day. [3] This I know you cannot do, and therefore I will make the Bible, understood as well as it can be by the reason which God has given me, my only standard of faith; I will have no other. Blessed be God for giving us an infallible standard. Praise be to his holy name forever! And shall I cast aside this revelation from God himself, and submit to be fettered by articles and creeds, the productions of imperfect creatures like myself? No, my dear Sir, God helping me, I never will. The Bible—the Bible for me. I will bind it to my heart; it shall be my guide through life, and my comfort in death.

Would you like, if such a thing were possible, to see an “act of uniformity” introduced among the laws of your country? No, no, you shudder at the thought. That be far from us, you instantly exclaim. But when you attempt to deny me the right of private judgment, and assert that I am a follower of Anti-Christ, because I have followed the dictates of my understanding and conscience, what are you doing but in your heart subscribing to an act of uniformity none the less to be feared and resisted, because it has its strong hold in public opinion, and not in civil laws and establishments? The only unity of faith which we can ever expect to see held “in the bond of peace,” is a unity of belief in that which Christ himself declares to be absolutely essential and fundamental; namely, a belief in him as the Messiah, which of course involves a belief in his divine authority. M. Sismondi remarks: “Let a man be suspicious of that person who would interpose between him and his God. Let him suspect the man who would teach him what he ought to believe, and who dares to affirm, that on a doctrine, which he communicates, depends the mercy of the Universal Parent.”

You will not deny that the right of private judgment is the great, fundamental principle of Protestantism, the principle of the Reformation. But alas! for frail human nature! those who glory in the name of Protestants—who constantly claim this right for themselves, are unwilling to grant it to others. But I, as a Protestant, and as a responsible being, can never for a moment think of giving up this right. My mind is my kingdom, shall I yield up the throne to a fellow mortal? Over it I can allow no human being to domineer. It belongs to me, and I belong to God. If I have no dominion over my own mind, If I have no prerogative here, where else have I the semblance of one? And shall I lightly yield this high prerogative? No, by the help of God, who gave me my intellectual faculties—my mind—my immortal nature—I will sacredly guard the treasure, though, in the struggle, I should lose all beside.

What has a man that he can call his own, if not his own thoughts, his own opinions? Who would care for the wealth of the world without power over his inner man? What would a man be, if he must surrender his mind to the custody of others? If he must think as others think, and believe as others believe? Oh, when the soul has once felt its own power, and stirred itself up to seek affinity with its God, and plumed it wings for a flight above this world into the pure atmosphere of Heaven, what power ought to detain it, what power can detain it here? You may chain the mortal body, you may torture the quivering limbs, but the soul, the soul, who can chain or torture that? If Jesus, the Anointed of God, gives it freedom, if Jesus gives it peace, who can chain or torture it? Unless a man is recreant to himself, none can do it. Unless a man surrenders to the keeping of others that priceless jewel, his inward being, he is free, he is peaceful, though storms rage all around him.

I have, my dear Sir, but little more to say in reply to your communications. They contain many things which I could wish had never been said, but I must regard them as a part of that discipline which is intended to refine and brighten the characters of those who are called to suffer and endure. In conclusion, I will only mention and point out to you one or two expressions which have wounded me to the heart. In one of your letters you say, “give my love and sympathies to your truly (aye, now for the first time truly) afflicted parents;” and in another you remark, that “the very Deist will say, she might at least have waited for the brief period which intervenes between her father and the tomb, before she brought this bitterness to his heart, this reproach to his name,—for what? The mere pride of expressing an opinion, which to conceal(?) would have injured neither herself nor others.”

Among the variety of motives which those who cannot possibly know anything about the matter have ascribed to me, the one just quoted stands pre-eminent. But why do you and others lose sight of the plain commands of the gospel? “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” is surely as binding on Christians now, as it was when it was uttered. Now when a man commits a wicked action—steals his neighbor’s property, sets fire to his neighbor’s house, or bears false witness against his neighbor—men cannot help judging of such actions. They see and know that he has done wickedly, that he has broken the laws of his county and of God; but when they attempt to pass severe and injurious opinions upon the motives which may have led an individual to pursue a certain course, which does not interfere with the rights or safety of any other man, what are they doing but violating the plain injunction of the Apostle, who said, “ Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts.” Do they forget that God will surely visit them for these things? that, as they sow, so shall they reap? The habit of ascribing to our fellow creatures any motive rather than giving them credit for good ones, and for what may be the true and right ones, is a most injurious habit; and it is alarmingly prevalent. If all men were guided by the principles of Unitarianism, which makes the laws of love and the rules of equity stand prominently forth, and which, moreover, make men personally responsible for their every action, word, and thought, these things would not exist. I do not pretend to say that all Unitarians are thoroughly imbued with that spirit of love which “worketh no ill to its neighbor,” but I do say that this law of love to man as well as to God, shines conspicuously and beautifully forth from their rational and heart-searching system of faith.

Now, however others may excommunicate and anathematize me, and my opinions, it is my joy and rejoicing that I cannot, will not, dare not, follow their example. I would not relinquish the delightful brotherhood I feel, with all who in every place acknowledge the Lord Jesus Christ as their Lord and Master, for worlds. No, not for any consideration which could be named. However sternly the majority may cast me out of this delightful fraternity, they cannot shut up my Christian sympathies, or cause me to deny to them the Christian name, merely because we give some portions of the Bible a different interpretation. We go to the same fountain of truth; we acknowledge the same Master; we shall, I devoutly and joyfully believe, meet in the same Heaven, and enjoy the same blessedness hereafter. I congratulate myself upon the fact that I can stretch out my arms, and embrace in my sympathy and love the whole Christian world.

But it is no insignificant part of the cross which I now have to bear, that I am in a great measure excluded from the Christian sympathies of my nearest and dearest relatives and friends. It is hard to carry about with me the continual consciousness that they regard me as having placed between myself and them an impassable barrier; and that, according to their way of thinking, there can be between us, on the most momentous of all subjects, no fellowship nor communion. Thus, while my heart is gushing with Christian love and sympathy, and longing to mingle with the hearts of those I love and venerate, its tide is often rudely checked, and turned back again to find a channel in the already overflowing heart from whence it came. This is not imagination. It is sober, mournful truth. I have been told over and over again by my friends, that, on religious subjects, there can be no sympathy between us, that I have created a wide gulf of separation between myself and them.

That you, my dear Sir, should be among those who feel thus, I deeply lament. But, as I have already said, it is my happiness, whatever others may think or say, to know that we all acknowledge the same spiritual Head, even Jesus Christ, the Messiah. I cherish the delightful consciousness that we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all. I would not, I repeat it, believe as you profess to believe, that all who do not receive the Messiah as the infinite God, are in a fatal, a soul ruining error; I would not believe thus, no, not for ten thousand worlds. I am told, in God’s infallible word, that if we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, we shall have eternal life. This you believe, and this we, Unitarians, also believe; and if your faith and ours on this Son of God, is that sort of faith which will bring forth “the fruits of holiness,” the “end” will be, to you and to us, “everlasting life.” Thus will I always endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. This belief—that even those who differ from me in opinion may be in the way to Heaven—shall ever be my joy and rejoicing, and it is a joy no man can take from me.

[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. “Would you see,” said the “ever memorable” John Hales, “how ridiculously we abuse ourselves, when we thus neglect our own knowledge, and securely hazard ourselves upon others’ skill? Give me leave then to show you a perfect pattern of it, and to report to you what I find in Seneca the philosopher recorded of a gentleman in Rome, who being purely ignorant, yet greatly desirous to seem learned, procured himself many servants, of which some he caused to study the poets, some the orators, some the historians, some the philosophers, and in a strange kind of fancy, all their learning he verily thought to be his own, and persuaded himself that he knew all that his servants understood; yea, he grew to that height of madness in this kind, that being weak in body, and diseased in his feet, he provided himself with wrestlers and runners, and proclaimed games and races, and performed them by his servants; still applauding himself, as if himself had done them.” [Senecae Epist. ad Lucil. xxvii.] Beloved, you are this man; when you neglect to try the spirits, to study the means of salvation yourselves, but content yourselves to take them upon trust. Back to top

2. See Appendix V. Back to top

3. It is only when we can forget the hour of death, that we can lay aside our sense of responsibility. I have met with a beautiful anecdote in illustration of this point. At the time when two thousand ministers were ejected in Great Britain for non-conformity, a Fellow of Emmanuel College in Cambridge, speaking to another member of the same college, remarked upon the difficulty of conforming conscientiously, “but,” continued and concluded he, “we must live.” To which his friend answered in these four emphatic words, “But we must die!” Back to top