LETTER I V: CONNECTION OF DOCTRINES
[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does not necessarily agree with the full content of this letter, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]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 am very well aware that you speak correctly when you say, “Neither the tenets you have renounced, nor those you have embraced, stand alone.” “They constitute,” you remark, “not only very material parts, but perhaps even bases of systems of belief, which diverge farther and farther from each other the more they are carried in detail to their respective and very different results. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them,’ is a rule, not only for judging persons, but single tenets and systems. And every single tenet, especially on the momentous points your letter embraces, has and must have a momentous connection with and influence upon other tenets. Human depravity, its origin, nature and extent; regeneration and its constituents; justification, in what it consists, and on what it rests; and indeed every important doctrine, almost without exception, will be materially, if not fundamentally affected. Until you have had time to contemplate these results, and to ascertain their connection, and the action and reaction of doctrines upon each other, will it not be better still to consider yourself an inquirer, and still, when you have occasion to speak on the subject, to announce yourself such?”
Before I proceed to reply to this extract, my dear father, allow me to thank you, from the depths of an overflowing heart, for the tone of serious mildness and charity which characterizes your management of my peculiar case. Rest assured, that every word and letter which comes from your pen has infinitely more weight with me than those furious denunciations which give evidence of a zeal that is not according to knowledge. You request me to consider myself “an inquirer.” I do, my father, consider myself an inquirer; and shall always do so while I live. That is to say, while my mind may be fully satisfied upon any given point, I shall always be ready to hear reasons for a different opinion, and to embrace and proclaim such an opinion when those reasons satisfy my mind. In the face of all the world, and in spite of the charges of “instability,” and “love of excitement,” and “love of notoriety,” which may be showered down upon me, I shall be ready to retract again my newly embraced opinions when I see them to be unscriptural and untenable.
I was in no special haste to avow my change of views; but you must be aware that we cannot always choose our times and seasons, or control our circumstances. You must also be aware that the moment it became known to some of my friends that I was even examining certain doctrinal points, all calm, unbiased, sober investigation was at an end. I found it absolutely necessary to acquaint my friends with the progress my mind had made—the conclusions to which I had arrived—the opinions I had adopted—and my reasons for those opinions. It has been for some time a subject of remark that I did not join in singing the doxology, and I have been obliged to evade questions, and to smile at exclamations, because the proper time for explanation had not arrived.
You speak of collateral doctrines and tenets which will be materially affected by my Unitarian views. But many of those doctrines, to which you allude, had passed in review before my mind, and had become materially modified long before my attention was turned to the great and distinguishing feature of Unitarianism—the absolute unity of God. It is a long time since my Calvinistic brethren, had they known my views, would have been willing to grant me the title of “Orthodox.” But, after all, the great question is, do I believe in a trinity of persons in the Godhead, or am I a believer in the absolute unity of God, and the subordinate nature of his Son?
It is now two months or more since my mind has been entirely satisfied in regard to the one great point of difference between Trinitarians and Unitarians, and, though it should require years of prayerful study to arrive at satisfactory conclusions upon other doctrinal points, I should all those years be still a Unitarian, if I continued, as I now am, a believer in the absolute and unqualified unity of God. Therefore, when my friends seem to expect me to wait till I am entirely satisfied in regard to every point of doctrine, before I avow myself a Unitarian, I answer that this may be the work of a lifetime, and does not at all affect the question of my being, or not being, a Unitarian. It might as well be insisted upon that a man should arrive at complete perfection, before he calls himself a Christian. I know that there are great differences of opinion among Unitarians, but so there are among Trinitarians; some are high Calvinists, some are moderate Calvinists, and some are Arminians.
The question with me, then, is, do I believe that there are three persons in one God, or do I believe that Jehovah is one, and one only? Now I believe that he is strictly one, and it seems impossible that I can ever believe otherwise, when, to my mind, it is as plain as demonstration, that the contrary scheme involves a contradiction. I must be a Unitarian, or a Tritheist, which the last I cannot be while I take the Bible for my guide. He is a Unitarian who rejects the Trinity; and be his views of the atonement, of native depravity, of human ability, or inability, what they may, still he is a Unitarian; he has gone over to one of the two great divisions of the Protestant world. If, therefore, he is a Unitarian, and not a Trinitarian, he ought to be in the Unitarian, and not the Trinitarian church.
You remark, “it is but too evident that you have had before you the entire strength of one side of the question.” It may be that I have; but you must bear in mind my declaration, that I was satisfied in regard to the undivided unity of God before I had read one single Unitarian work, except the New Testament; which I now regard as the most powerful and convincing Unitarian book in the world. When I make this declaration, I have a right to be believed; and I leave it with you, who know, better than others can know, my attachment to the truth. I went to the Bible, divesting myself, as much as possible, of educational prepossessions; and it was from that source my mind was satisfied. I read the New testament day and night, with the concentrated energies of my intellect, and rose up from the perusal a thoroughly convinced Unitarian.
I think you are mistaken also, my dear father, when you assert that one side, meaning the Unitarian side, “has had immensely and almost overwhelmingly the advantage of the other.” I should be inclined exactly to reverse the statement. As I have before remarked, I have always found the doctrine of the Trinity so perplexing, that I have read over and over again all the arguments I could find in its favor, and no one but myself can know how I have struggled to continue a Trinitarian.
Your letter goes on to say, “you ought also to consider the influence of your course upon others, upon the cause of religion, and upon your publications, especially the volume of poems entitled ‘The Parted Family,’ as well as upon the feelings and happiness of your friends. Not that any of these considerations, nor all of them, should suppress or seriously interfere with sincere inquiries after truth; but only with an unnecessary or premature declaration, which may have a use made of it by others, you perhaps do not at all anticipate, the occurrence of which you may afterwards deeply regret, when it may be too late to repair it. . . . . . We are all answerable for our influence, and though that fact should not be suffered to render us insincere, nor to suppress needful or useful inquiry, yet it should modify, qualify, and regulate the degree and manner of our disclosure to others of the results to which we may have arrived. This is, perhaps, one of those cases in which he that believeth should not make haste. I fear that many may be driven from the Bible, through indifference or disrelish of its contents, when they learn that you, through the Bible, have arrived at your present conclusions.”
Your remarks in regard to the importance of our influence are just what they should be, and I trust will not be without their legitimate effect upon my mind. Yet I cannot hope that my friends will be able to appreciate fully the force and peculiarity of the circumstances by which I am surrounded, inasmuch as they themselves—by their affection for me, their zeal for what they regard to be fundamental truth, and their opposition to what they deem fundamental error—create those very circumstances. A crisis has come when it is absolutely necessary for me most sacredly and vigilantly to guard the right of private judgment, and conscientiously and fearlessly to avow my honest opinions. These remarks are not called forth, my dear father, by anything which you have said or done. If all my friends had pursued the calm and consistent course which your example should have prompted, I should not now be obliged continually to defend myself from charges which their own misguided zeal has brought upon me.
I wish, my dear father, before I bring this letter to a close, to reply to a remark of yours which has given me some pain. “I deeply regret,” you say, “to hear you speak in the manner you have done of such men as Scott and Newton.” And further, in regard to Scott, you say, “I have concluded to make a remark or two on the apparent insincerity of Scott in not informing his readers of Whitby’s change of views when he made quotations from his writings. I have usually considered Scott as so remarkably candid a writer, that I cannot have him reflected on without defending him where I find he is defensible. Scott quoted, I must presume, just as anyone would do, from a book containing what he considered correct and valuable sentiments. I presume he meant neither to proclaim nor conceal the system embraced by Whitby, but to exhibit his argument, leaving his readers to judge of its conclusiveness, as well as of where it might be found.”
If I have done Dr. Scott injustice, I am truly sorry for it; I meant not to speak disrespectfully of such a man; and in regard to Sir Isaac Newton,  I gave no opinion of my own, but merely mentioned where his opinions might be found, and then quoted what Professor Sparks had said in regard to the same subject. I will now say, however, with all due modesty, that it seems to me that no one can read his “Historical Account of two Notable Corruptions of Scripture,” without believing him to be a Unitarian; but different minds are differently constituted.
1. Since the above was written, it has occurred to me that perhaps you allude to the Rev. John Newton; for I recollect saying to you that I thought the influence of his high Calvinistic views had operated most injuriously upon the sensitive mind of the unfortunate Cowper. Back to top