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For it is one of the fundamental principles of Unitarians, and one upon which they act, that a man is to hold himself responsible for no opinions, except his own, and is accordingly to pin his faith to no man's sleeve, be it the papal scarlet, or the bishop's lawn, but is to exercise the right of private judgment in religion, uninfluenced by the fear or the favor of man, seeking light from all quarters, wberever it may break forth, and bowing to Jesus Christ alone, as his Master. The views of Dr PRIESTLEY differ much in several respects from those of a large portion of the Unitarians. He is not to be taken as the representative of their faith, nor is any other single individual. Least of all, would those engaged in the present work, undertake to defend all his opinions, or vouch for the soundness of all his reasonings. But where compelled to disagree with him, they cannot but love and respect his uniform and unequalled candor, good temper, love of truth, and moral independence.
The following is a book of facts, not merely the statement of opinions, and though some may not agree with the author in all his inferences froin historical facts, yet all are here furnished with a store-house of invaluable materials for making up independent judgments of their own on the subjects discussed.
One word is demanded by the aspersions that have been freely, and generally lavished upon the author. Quite a common idea has been that he was an infidel in disguise, industrious in sapping the foundations of Christianity, and poisoning the minds of men, yet holding on to the name of Christian, that he might do his fell work all the more effectually—an error as great, as to confound the surgeon who uses the lancet to save life, with the assassin who thrusts in his dagger to destroy it. Priestley cut off with a courageous and skilful hand the gangrened excrescences, but he left the true body restored and healthful. It was his jealousy for the purity of Christianity that drew down upon him persecution whilst living, and dishonor upon his posthumous reputation. That he was a sincere Christian, in his heart, his life, and his writings, all who were intimate with his character and conduct, and have perused his works, earnestly testify. One who was personally acquainted with him uses these words: “I can truly say that I never met with any one who was superior to him in the greatest and most lovely qualities. Without any affectation of sanctity, he was habitually of a devout frame of mind; perhaps no human being was more in the practice of referring every thing to God. He had learning and knowledge enough for a dozen respectable men; yet he had all the sinsplicity of a little child. There was a charm about his conversation, which caused many to respect and love him, although they continued to adhere to an opposite creed-witness the eloquent eulogies of Robert Hall and Ds Parr."
REV. THEOPHILUS LINDSEY, A. M.
Dear FRIEND,—Wishing, as I do, that my name may ever be connected as closely with yours after death, as we have been connected by friendship in life, it is with peculiar satisfaction that I dedicate this work (which I am willing to hope will be one of the most useful of my publications) to you.
To your example of a pure love of truth, and of the most fearless integrity in asserting it, evidenced by the sacrifices you have made to it, I owe much of my own wishes to imbibe the same spirit; though a more favorable education, and situation in life, by not giving me an opportunity of distinguishing myself as you have done, has, likewise, not exposed me to the temptation of acting otherwise; and for this I wish to be truly thankful. For since so very few of those who profess the same sentiments with you, have had the courage to act consistently with them, no person, whatever he may imagine he might have been equal to, can have a right to presume, that he would have been one of so small a number.
No person can see in a stronger light than you do the mischievous consequences of the corruptions of that religion which you justly prize, as the most valuable of the gifts of God to man; and therefore I flatter myself, it will give you some pleasure to accompany me in my researches into the origin and progress of them, as this will tend to give all the friends of pure christianity the fullest satisfaction that they reflect no discredit on the revelation itself; since it will be seen that they all came in from a foreign and hostile quarter. It will likewise afford a pleasing presage, that our religion will, in due time, purge itself of every thing that debases it, and that for the present prevents its reception by those who are ignorant of its nature, whether living in Christian countries, or among Mahometans and heathens.
The gross darkness of that night which has for many centuries obscured our holy religion, we may clearly see, is past ; the morning is opening upon us; and we cannot doubt but that the light will increase, and extend itself more and more, unto the perfect day. Happy are they who contribute to diffuse the pure light of this everlasting gospel. The time is coming when the detection of one error, or prejudice, relating to this most important subject, and the success we have in opening and enlarging the minds of men with respect to it, will be considered as far more honorable than any discovery we can make in other branches of knowledge, or our success in propagating them.
In looking back upon the dismal scene which the shocking corruptions of christianity exhibit, we may well exclaim with the prophet, How is the gold become dim, how is the most fine gold changed. But the thorough examination of every thing relating to christianity, which has been produced by the corrupt state of it, and which nothing else would probably have led to, has been as the refiner's fire with respect to it; and when it shall have stood this test, it may be presumed that the truth and excellency of it will never more be called in question.
This corrupt state of christianity has, no doubt, been permitted by the Supreme Governor of the world for the best of purposes, and it is the same great Being who is also now, in the course of his providence, employing these means to purge his floor. The civil powers of this world, which were formerly the chief supports of the antichristian systems, which have given their power and strength unto the beast (Rev. xvii. 13) now begin to hate her, and are ready to make her desolate and naked, ver. 16. To answer their own political purposes, they are now promoting various reformations in the church; and it can hardly be doubted, but that the difficulties in which many of the European nations are now involving themselves, will make other measures of reformation highly expedient and necessary.
Also, while the attention of men in power is engrossed by the difficulties that more immediately press upon them, the endeavors of the friends of reformation in points of doctrine pass with less notice, and operate without obstruction. Let us rejoice in the good that results from this evil, and omit no opportunity that is furnished us, voluntarily to co-operate with the gracious intention of divine providence; and let us make that our primary object, which others are doing to promote their own sinister ends. All those who labor in the discovery and communication of truth, if they be actuated by a pure love of it, and a sense of its importance to the happiness of mankind, may consider themselves as workers together with God, and may proceed with confidence, assured that their labors in this cause shall not be in vain, whether they themselves see the fruit of it or not.
The more opposition we meet with in these labors, the more honorable it will be to us, provided we meet that opposition with the true spirit of christianity. And to assist us in this, we should frequently reflect that many of our opponents are probably men who wish as well to the gospel as we do ourselves, and really think they do God service by opposing us. Even prejudice and bigotry, arising from such a principle, are respectable things, and entitled to the greatest candor. If our religion teaches us to love our enemies, certainly we should love, and, from a principle of love, should endeavor to convince those, who, if they were only better informed, would embrace us friends.
The time will come, when the cloud, which for the present prevents our distinguishing our friends and our foes, will be dispersed, even that day in which the secrets of all hearts will be disclosed to the view of all. In the mean time, let us think as favorably as possible of all men, our particular opponents not excepied; and therefore be careful to conduct all hostility with the pleasing prospect that one day it will give place to the most perfect amity.
You, my friend, peculiarly happy in a most placid, as well as a most determined mind, have nothing to blame yourself for in this respect. If, on any occasion, I have indulged too much asperity, I hope I shall, by your example, learn to correct myself, and without abating my zeal in the
As we are now both of us past the meridian of life, I hope we shall be looking more and more beyond it, and be preparing for that world, where we shall have no errors to combat, and consequently where a talent for disputation
will be of no use; but where the spirit of love will find abundant exercise; where all our labors will be of the most friendly and benevolent nature, and where our employment will be its own reward.
Let these views brighten the evening of our lives, that evening, which will be enjoyed with more satisfaction, in proportion as the day shall have been laboriously and well spent. Let us then, without reluctance, submit to that temporary rest in the grave, which our wise Creator has thought proper to appoint for all the human race, our Savior himself not wholly excepted; anticipating with joy the glorious morning of the resurrection, when we shall meet that Sav. ior whose precepts we have obeyed, whose spirit we have breathed, whose religion we have defended, whose cup also we may, in some measure, have drank of, and whose honors we have asserted, without making them to interfere with those of his father and our father, of his God and our God, that supreme, that great and awful Being, to whose will he was always most perfectly submissive, and for whose, unrivalled prerogative he always showed the most ardent zeal.
With the truest affection,
J. PRIESTLEY. BIRMINGHAM, Nov. 1782.