Page images

after death, and yet dreads that existence. The Governor of the world is unknown. He cannot tell whether every endeavour to obtain his mercy may not be vain. All is awful obscurity around him; and in the midst of endless doubts and perplexities, the trembling, reluctant soul is forced away from the body. As the misfortunes of life must, to such a man, have been most oppressive, so its end is bitter. His sun sets in a dark cloud; and the night of death closes over his head, full of misery. Having now shewn how important the Knowledge of the Lord is, both to the improvement and the consolation of man, considered as an individual, I am next to shew,

[ocr errors]

II. How important this knowledge is to him as a member of society. This branch of the subject is in part anticipated by what has been said. For all the improvement which man receives as an individual, redounds to the benefit of the public. Society reaps the fruit of the virtues of all the members who compose it; and in proportion as each, apart, is made better, the whole must flourish.

But, besides this effect, Religious Knowledge has a direct tendency to improve the social intercourse of men, and to assist them in co-operating for common good. It is the great instrument of civilizing the multitude, and forming them to union. It tames the fierceness of their passions, and softens the rudeness of their manners. There is much reason to doubt whether any regular society ever subsisted, or could subsist, in the world destitute of all religious ideas and principles. They who, in early times, attempted to bring the wandering and scattered tribes of men

from the woods, and to unite them in cities and communities, always found it necessary to begin with some institution of religion. The wisest legislators of old, through the whole progress of their systems of government, considered religion as essential to civil polity. If even those imperfect forms of it, loaded with so much superstition and errour, were important to the welfare of society, how much more that reasonable worship of the true God, which is taught by the Gospel? True religion introduces the idea of regular subjection, by accustoming mankind to the awe of superiour power in the Deity, joined with the veneration of superiour wisdom and goodness. It is by its nature an associating principle; and creates new and sacred bonds of union among men. Common assemblies for religious worship, and joint homage offered up to one God; the sense of being all dependent on the same protection, and bound to duty by the same ties, sharers in the same benefits of heaven, and expectants of the same reward, tend to awaken the sentiments of friendly relation and to confirm and strengthen our mutual connection. The doctrine of Christianity is most adverse to all tyranny and oppression, but highly favourable to the interest of good government among men. presses the spirit of licentiousness and sedition. It inculcates the duty of subordination to lawful superiours. It requires us to fear God, to honour the king, and not to meddle with them that are given to change.

It re

Religious Knowledge forwards all useful and ornamental improvements in society. Experience shews, that in proportion as it diffuses its light, learning flourishes, and liberal arts are cultivated and advanced. Just conceptions of religion promote a free

and manly spirit. They lead men to think for themselves; to form their principles upon fair enquiry, and not to resign their conscience to the dictates of men. Hence they naturally inspire aversion to slavery of every kind; and promote a taste for liberty and laws. Despotic governments have generally taken the firmest root among nations that were blinded by Mahometan or Pagan darkness; where the throne of violence has been supported by ignorance and false religion. In the Christian world, during those centuries in which gross superstition held its reign undisturbed, oppression and slavery were in this train. The cloud of ignorance sat thick and deep over the nations; and the world was threatened with a relapse into ancient barbarity. As soon as the true Knowledge of the Lord revived, at the auspicious æra of the Reformation, learning, liberty, and arts, began to shine forth with it, and to resume their lustre.

But the happy influence which religion exerts on society, extends much farther than to effects of this kind. It is not only subsidiary to the improvement, but necessary to the preservation of society. It is the very basis on which it rests. Religious principle is what gives men the surest hold of one another. That last, and greatest pledge of veracity, an oath, without which no society could subsist, derives its whole authority from an established reverence of God, to whom it is a solemn appeal. Banish religious principle, and you loosen all the bonds which connect mankind together; you shake the fundamental pillar of mutual confidence and trust; you render the security arising from laws, in a great measure, void and ineffectual. For human laws and human sanctions cannot extend to numberless cases, in which

the safety of mankind is deeply concerned. They would prove very feeble instruments of order and peace, if there were no checks upon the conduct of men from the sense of Divine legislation; if no belief of future rewards and punishments were to overawe conscience, and to supply the defects of human government.

Indeed, the belief of religion is of such importance to public welfare, that the most expressive description we could give of a society of men in the utmost disorder, would be to say that there was no fear of God, left among them. Imagination would immediately conceive them as abandoned to rapine and violence, to perfidy and treachery; as deceiving and deceived; oppressing and oppressed; consumed by intestine broils, and ripe for becoming a prey to the first invader. On the other hand, in order to form the idea of a society flourishing in its highest glory, we need only conceive the belief of Christian principle exerting its full influence on the hearts and lives of all the members. Instantly, the most amiable scene would open to our view. We should see the causes of public disunion removed when men were animated with that noble spirit of love and charity which our religion breathes, and formed to the pursuit of those higher interests, which give no occasion to competition and jealousy. We should see families, neighbourhoods, and communities, living in unbroken amity, and pursuing, with one heart and mind, the common interests; sobriety of manners, and simplicity of life, restored; virtuous industry carrying on its useful labours, and cheerful contentment everywhere reigning. Politicians may lay down what plans they, please for advancing public prosperity;

but, in truth, it is the prevalency of such principles of religion and virtue which forms the strength and glory of a nation. Where these are totally wanting, no measures contrived by human wisdom can supply the defect. In proportion as they prevail, they raise the state of society from that sad degeneracy into which it is at present sunk, and carry it forward, under the blessing of heaven, towards that happy period, when nations shall not lift up their sword against nation, nor learn war any more.

In order to prove the importance of Religious Knowledge to the interest of society, one consideration more, deserving particular attention, remains to be mentioned. It is, that if good sense be not sown in the field, tares will infallibly spring up. The propension towards religion is strong in the human heart. There is a natural preparation in our minds for receiving some impressions of supernatural belief. Upon these among ignorant and uncultivated men, superstition or enthusiasm never fail to graft themselves. Into what monstrous forms these have shot forth, and what various mischiefs they have produced to society, is too well known. Nor is this the whole of the danger. Designing men are always ready to take advantage of this popular weakness, and to direct the superstitious bias of the multitude to their own ambitious and interested ends. Superstition, in itself a formidable evil, threatens consequences still more formidable when it is rendered the tool of design and craft. Hence arises one of the most powerful arguments for propagating with zeal, as far as our influence can extend, the pure and undefiled doctrines of the Gospel of Christ; in order

« PreviousContinue »