Letters from Mary Dana (1845) Letter 29

Posted

L E T T E R X X I X
CAUSES OF INFIDELITY

[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does not necessarily agree with the full content of this letter, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]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 have frequently heard it asserted of late that the present age is preëminently an age of infidelity, and I have unhesitatingly assented to the proposition. I did so because I thought that a belief in certain dogmas was a necessary part of a belief in Christianity itself; and it appeared to me quite certain that those peculiar dogmas were losing their hold upon the minds of men. Therefore, it was that I verily thought that Christianity itself was every day becoming far less valuable to the majority of men. And it may be so; I do not pretend to judge. If it be true that infidelity is on the increase, is it not in a great measure owing to the fact that tests are required by those who think they hold ecclesiastical authority, to which men, who value religious freedom, and the right of private judgment, will not submit?

It appears to me that Hume was not far from the truth when he jeeringly asserted, that the popular theology had “a kind of appetite for absurdity, and contradiction.” And he really seems to have had in his mind persons very much like some of those who live in the present day, when he speaks of “devout votaries, who desire an opportunity of subduing their rebellious reason by the belief of the most unintelligible sophisms.” What Hume, the infidel, spoke in derision, many sincere Christians earnestly believe and lament. The illustrious Duke of Grafton declared it to have been his opinion that the Christian religion “having been corrupted from very early times by various means, and these corruptions having been mistaken for essential parts of it, had been the cause of rendering the whole religion incredible to many men of sense.” And Dr. Priestly, in a letter to his friend Mr. Lindsey, speaking of an unbeliever with whom he had been conversing, says, “He, like thousands of others, told me, that he was so much disgusted with the doctrines of the church of England, especially the Trinity, that he considered the whole business as an imposition, without further inquiry.”

Now it is no crime to doubt. The moment a man honestly doubts, he shows his anxiety to believe on correct principles. And if men were permitted to doubt, without having the hue and cry of “infidel” raised against them,—if men’s doubts were more respected, they would be more calmly and earnestly met, and there would be less infidelity in the world. Many an honest and independent mind, in its search after truth, has become “disgusted” at the injustice with which it has been treated, has given up the search altogether, and taken refuge in the gloomy shades of infidelity, rather than encounter the scorching heat of bigotry. It is a man’s own fault, I confess, if he allow himself thus to be worried from the field, and driven from the object of his search; but there is a fault elsewhere. It requires a love for truth which few men possess to be willing to brave opposition, and to encounter fanaticism and intolerance for its attainment.

An attentive and candid observer of the current literature of the present age cannot fail to be stuck with the fact, that the religion of Jesus Christ does not hold that place which it deserves in the affections of popular writers. In searching for a reason for this melancholy fact, will it not be apparent that it is mainly owing to the false ideas, so generally prevalent, of what religion is, and in what it consists? It is fashionable to make religion consist in a formal assent to certain inferential propositions, contained in the formulas of ecclesiastical bodies, and not in an assent to the simple truths of the Bible as each man is able to collect them for himself. Men whose minds have been liberalized by general study, and strengthened by habits of original thought, will not be trammelled. They plainly perceive that they can form as correct a judgment of the truths of the Bible as other men, and they claim the privilege of doing it. But, by common consent, they cannot be admitted into the Christian community till they are willing to receive certain dogmas to which the majority of the Christian world have pledged themselves. Hence, it is too often the case, that, unless religion has taken a powerful hold of their affections, they turn away in discouragement or displeasure from the whole concern. Then religion is made to suffer for the sad mistakes which are committed in her name.

When the public mind has been unnaturally strained in one direction, a corresponding rebound in the opposite one may always be expected. Look at Germany, and see an illustration of this general rule. Her theologians, having burst asunder the fetters in which they had been bound, have indulged themselves in such freedom of speculation, that fancy seems almost to have usurped the place of calm reason and sober judgment. This will not last. Even now the disease is working its own cure. She has the Bible, and that will gradually remove her errors, and teach her the truth. The German theologians commenced their inquiries at a time when infidelity was at work over the whole European continent—infidelity which had, naturally enough, taken the place of superstition. As I said before, they have the Bible, and if they seek, they will find. Let us never be afraid of free inquiry when the Bible is its subject and its guide.

I believe that the minds of many men are stirred upon the subject of religion as they have never been before; that the religious principle is taking firmer root in men’s hearts than it has ever done before. The consequence is, that there is a general and decided movement in the Christian world. There are those, on the one hand, who are in favor of drawing tighter and closer the fetters and subjects of ecclesiastical rule and order; while, on the other hand, there are those who earnestly desire to see a perfect exhibition of religious liberty and equality, in the broadest sense of those terms. No one can doubt this, who will attentively watch the signs of the times—the controversies and the struggles which are going on amid every sect in Christendom. I will allude, by way of illustration, to late movements among several orthodox religious bodies. See how the Episcopal church is convulsed to its very center; how the Presbyterian church has been rent asunder; and how among the Methodists, and Baptists, and others, the same principles are at work. Look at the late movements in the American Tract Society. Its publishing committee have been publicly censured for altering the works of President Edwards to suit the altered taste of the times. The rigors of Calvinism must be softened, or it will not now be received. Those who are curious upon this subject will perhaps be interested in comparing some of the works of Edwards, as recently published by the Tract Society, with the same works as they originally came from his hands.

On the other hand, look at the spirit of rigid orthodoxy as it has recently been exhibited at the annual meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. During the debate concerning the validity of Roman Catholic baptism, a prominent member of that body asserted, that there was not truth enough in the church of Rome to save a sinner. Did he forget the name of Fenchon? Did he never hear of the great and good Quesnel? Has the memory of Pascal ceased from a world which he enlightened and sanctified by his learning and piety? Has history never informed him of Massillon, who in the polluted atmosphere of the court of Louis XIV. kept his lamp trimmed, and was a bright and shining light?—to whom the monarch himself confessed, “Father, when I hear other preachers, I go away much pleased with them; but whenever I hear you, I go away much displeased with myself.” Has he never seen any private Christians belonging to that communion, who feared God and worked righteousness,—of whom the Scriptures declare, that, in every nation, they who do these things shall find acceptance? It would be amusing, were it not so lamentable, to see infallibility thus arrayed against infallibility.

While then, it may be true that the majority of men are growing more thoughtless and irreligious, it appears to me that many of those who do think are thinking to some purpose,—are learning to discriminate between essentials and non-essentials. Thus are they aiding to divest the religion of Jesus Christ of those human additions—”terrene concretions,” as an old writer quaintly calls them—which have hindered its spread in the world. Thus are they endeavoring to hold it up in its wondrous beauty and simplicity, before the eyes of an admiring multitude; and surely they will have their reward.

Ah, my dear Sir, it is all in vain now to claim for certain systems, the inventions of men, and sustained by human power, the same authority they had when called forth by a different sate of things, in a different age of the world. The world, as it grows old, grows wise; at least, it thinks so; and will not consent to be under tutors and governors as in its childhood. Ignorance and superstition have fled before knowledge, and a servile spirit has given place to a spirit of liberty. This state of things has its dangers, I confess; but still the fact remains that such a state exists, and men must prepare themselves for its development.

I honestly believe that, in proportion as men are released from the tyranny of the dogmas imposed by human creeds, will pure and undefiled religion extend and flourish. Yet I do not at all wonder that sectarians, honest and pious men, who hold, as I once did, the necessity of believing certain tenets not explicitly taught in the word of God, should be alarmed at what seems to them the spread of infidelity. Once it seemed so to me; but over what I formerly mourned, I now rejoice. God be praised, that men are learning to take the Bible to their free hearts—to clasp it with honest independence, and hold it firmly there. God be praised, that they will allow no human authority to come between their Bibles and their hearts—their God and themselves. The moment men do this, Christianity must triumph. There is a wonderful adaptedness of the simple truths of religion to man’s miseries and necessities. But, so long as these simple truths are obscured by the traditions of men, they must, to a great degree, lose their power; and the peaceful religion of Jesus Christ will be, as it has too often been, the apple of discord among the sons and daughters of men,—the watch-word of angry contention and party strife.

I will conclude this letter with an anecdote of the celebrated Col. Lehmanowsky. When he first enlisted in the French army, as Napoleon was one day reviewing his troops, something occurred, perhaps the passing of a religious procession, which caused all the Catholics to kneel, and bow themselves to the ground. Lehmanowsky stood erect. “Why do you not kneel?” inquired Napoleon. “Sire,” replied the soldier, “I cannot; I am a Protestant.” “Fall back then,” said the Emperor mildly, and the soldier did so. “I will watch that man,” said Lehmanowsky to himself; “he respects my conscience.” My dear Sir, let us all respect each other’s consciences.

[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.]