Produced by Charles Klingman
Reverend Mr. Channing
His Two Sermons
By George Bethune English, A.M.
Printed for the Author
Your eloquent and interesting Sermons on Infidelity, I have read with the interest arising from the nature of the subject you have discussed, and the impressive manner in which you have treated it.
As it is understood that the appearance of those Sermons was owing to a Book lately published by me, I request your pardon for a liberty I am about to take, which in any other circumstances I should blush to presume upon-it is sir, with deference, and great respect, to express my sentiments with regard to some of the arguments contained in them, where the reasoning does not appear to me so unexceptionable as the language in which it is enveloped, is eloquent and affecting. There are also some opinions of yours relative to matters of fact, in those discourses, to which I would respectfully solicit your attention.
It afforded me much pleasure, though it caused me no surprise, to perceive you to say in your introductory remarks, that these Sermons were designed to procure for the arguments for Christianity "a serious, and respectful attention" and, that if you should "be so happy as to awaken candid and patient enquiry," your "principal object will be accomplished" you wish, "that Christianity should be thoroughly examined," you do "not wish to screen it from enquiry." It would cease, you observe to be your support were you not "persuaded that it is able to sustain the most deliberate investigation."
In considering Christianity as a fair subject for discussion, you do justice to the cause you so eloquently defend for Christianity itself honestly, and openly professes to offer itself, to the belief of all mankind solely on account of the reasons which support it; and since its learned, and liberal advocates always announce, and recommend it from the Pulpit as reasonable in itself and confirmed by unanswerable arguments; no one who believes them sincere can doubt, that they are perfectly willing to have its claims openly discussed and think themselves amply able to give valid reasons, "for the faith that is in them," and which they so earnestly invite all men to receive.
You observe, p. 13, that the writings of Infidels, "have been injurious not so much by the strength of their arguments, as by the positive, and contemptuous manner In which they speak of Revelation, they abound in sarcasm, abuse, and sneer, and supply the place of reasoning, by wit and satire." If so sir, it is all in favor of the cause you defend; for the tiny weapons of wit, and ridicule, will assuredly fly to shivers under a few blows from the solid, and massy club of sound logic. The man who attacks any system of Religion merely with wit, and ridicule, can never, I conceive, be a very formidable antagonist.
The mental imbecility of the man who could touch such a subject as religion in any shape with no other arms, would render him a harmless adversary, and the intrinsic weakness of such shining but slender weapons, when encountered with something more solid, would eventually render him a contemptible one, I therefore cannot help doubting, that wit and ridicule alone, and unsupported by reasoning, and good reasoning too, could ever have been very successfully wielded against such a thing as the Christian Religion, by its opposers.
No man it appears to me of common understanding will ever resign his religion on account of a few jokes, and bon mots. The adherence of such men as are weak enough to be subverted by such trifles can do as little honor to Christianity, as their abandoning it for such reasons, can affect it with disgrace. The belief of such men could never have been more than habit, and their Infidelity nothing else than a freak of folly, which is reproachful only to themselves. But after all, this vehement objection to wit and ridicule, appears to me a little imprudent; for a sarcastic opponent might reply, that sceptics, have been not unfrequently attacked with irony most severe, and sometimes sorely wounded by vollies of wit shot from the pulpit, a place too where it can be done without fear of reprisals. You know sir, that the famous Warburton, for instance, used to amuse himself with not only cutting down every unlucky sceptic that came in his way, but he absolutely cut them to pieces with the edge of ridicule, most bitterly envenomed too with something else. It seems therefore a little unreasonable, that what is fair for one party, should not be so for the other too. Besides, the advocates of a cause, which is said not only not to fear examination, but to challenge it, should not, it appears to me, when taken at their words shrink, and draw back, on account of such trifles as wit, and ridicule; because the style of an investigation cannot certainly conceal the immutable distinction between a good argument and a bad one, from such learned and penetrating adversaries as the Clergy; and moreover does it appear clear that an advocate after asserting a proposition, and defying refutation, has any right to insist, that his opponent should put his arguments in just such a form as would be most convenient to him? What would a penetrating Lawyer think of the cause of his opponent, on finding him to insist upon his arranging his objections, and expressing his arguments just so that it might be most easy to him to reply to them?
For my own part, I have no claims to wit, and if I have been sometimes sarcastic it was more than I meant to be, it was the premeditated consequence of bitter feelings arising from considering myself as having been betrayed by my credulity into taking a situation in society, which I had discovered I must quit at no less a hazard than that the destruction of all my plans and prospects for life. At any rate I am satisfied, that no ridicule of mine has been intentionally adduced by me in order to corroborate a false position, or a weak argument; I believe that it seldom appears except in the rear of something more respectable and efficient.
You observe, that Christianity "deserves at least respectful, and serious attention, must be evident to every man who has honesty of mind." Nothing can be more true than this, it is a subject which does deserve a respectful, and serious attention: because every thing claiming to be from God ought to be carefully, coolly, and respectfully examined on these accounts.
1. If it be from God it is of the highest importance to the welfare of mankind that its truth should be investigated thoroughly, and settled firmly.
2. Because if it is not from God it must be the fruit of either of error or fraud, if of the first it ought to be rejected as a delusion; if of the second it ought to be cast off as a deception practiced in the name of the God of truth, and therefore disrespectful to him.
It also merits, you most truly say, a respectful examination on account of the character of its founder, for the character of Jesus you justly consider as too excellent and unexceptionable to be reproached. Whatever may be said concerning the moral excellence of that person's character I will cheerfully assent to, and I could not listen without disgust to language impeaching his moral purity. This I can do without ceasing to suppose him an enthusiast; for there appears to me to be too many marks of it in the New Testament for the idea to be set aside by a few eloquent exclamations, and notes of admiration; if I am wrong in this idea or in others, I will not prove indocile to arguments that shall sufficiently show the contrary.
You observe, p. 16. "another consideration which entitles Christianity to respectful attention is this. That Jesus Christ appeared at a time when there prevailed in the east a universal expectation of a distinguished personage who was to produce a great and happy change in the world. This expectation was built on writings which claimed to be prophetic, which existed long before Jesus was born."
I cannot help thinking the very great stress which has been laid upon this "rumour spread all over the east" a little unreasonable.
For 1. "A rumour" is not as I apprehend an adequate foundation on which to build such a thing as the Christian religion, which claims to be derived from heaven.
2. Those who have brought forward with so much earnestness this popular rumour, have not, I conceive, paid due attention to the causes that might naturally have produced it, which were possibly these. There is in the Jewish prophets frequent mention of a great deliverer, and it is represented that he should appear in the time when the Jewish nation should be suffering under most grievous afflictions, and who should deliver them therefrom, Now was it not perfectly natural for the Jews, dispersed over Asia, to expect, and to circulate the notion of this deliverer when their own sufferings, inflicted by their enemies, were intolerable? If you will open Josephus, you will there read that about and after the time of the crucifixion of Jesus the Jews were dreadfully oppressed by the Romans, and were designedly driven to desperation, by Florus with the express purpose of exciting a rebellion, and thus prevent their accusing him of his crimes before the tribunal of Caesar. Was it at all unnatural therefore for the Jews thus oppressed, and reading in their sacred books, that they should be delivered from their oppressors by the appearance of their great deliverer when their sufferings were at the heighth; was it extraordinary that the Jews, writhing under the lash of tyrannical conquerors, and considering their then circumstances, to expect this deliverer at that time? And to conclude, does it, after all, appear that this rumour prevailed in the life time of Jesus, or not till about thirty years after his crucifixion?
You add, "now this is a remarkable circumstance which distinguishes Jesus from the founders of all other religions." This was no doubt a slip of the memory, as so learned a man as Mr. Channing, no doubt knows that the Mahometans, who are the most numerous sect of religionists now in the world, affirm, that there was a very general expectation of their victorious prophet Mahomet, about the time of his birth grounded on tradition, and, as they say, originally on very many texts of the Old Testament, which texts, with divers more from the New Testament, are urged by the Mahometan Divines as to the same purpose: these texts, and their irrelevancy are collected and shown by Father Maracci in his first Dissertation prefixed to his edition of the Koran, printed at Padua 1698. Collins, in his answer to the Bishop of Litchfield, and Coventry, states this fact, and refers to "Addison's first state of Mahometanism" p. 35. "Life of Mahomet" before four treatises concerning the doctrine of the Mahometans, p. 9. Maracci's Appendix ad Prodromum primum.p. 36-46.
In p. 18, you say, that the prophecies with regard to the Messiah, "describe a deliverer of the human race very similar to say the least to the character in which Jesus appeared." I must confess that after reading again the prophecies collected in the third chapter of "The Grounds of Christianity examined" this similarity still remains invisible to me. I hope you will not be offended at my avowing that you appear to me to be sensible of the difficulty of this affair of the Messiahship, for you content yourself with adducing that characteristic of the Christ recorded in the Old Testament, his teaching and enlightening the Gentiles with the knowledge of God, and true religion, as applicable to Jesus, and sufficient to prove him the Messiah. Yet supposing that this characteristic would apply to Jesus, it would not, I think, be sufficient to prove him to be the Messiah or Christ: since this characteristic is merely one among twenty other marks given, and required to be found.
2. It would, it appears to me, prove Mahomet the Messiah sooner than Jesus; since Mahomet in person converted more Gentiles to the knowledge and worship of one God during his life time, than Christianity did in one hundred years.
3. But what is still more to the purpose, it cannot, I conceive, apply to Jesus at all, since he did not fulfill even this solitary characteristic; for he did not preach to the Gentiles, but confined his mission and teaching to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." It was Paul who established Christianity among the Gentiles.
In p. 18, you appear to admit that all the characteristic marks of the Messiah were not manifested in Jesus, but will be manifested at some future period. To which a Jew might answer, by politely asking you, whether then you do not require too much of him for the present, in demanding faith upon credit?
But that when Jesus of Nazareth in this future time shall fulfill the prophecies; will it not be time enough to believe him to be the Messiah?
You ask, p. 19, "was ever character more pacific than that of Jesus? Can any religion breathe a milder temper than his? Into how many ferocious breasts has it already infused the kindest and gentlest spirit? And after all these considerations is Jesus to be rejected because some prophecies which relate to his future triumphs are not yet accomplished?" This argument I can easily conceive must have had great weight with such a man as Mr. Channing, whose heart accords with every thing that is mild and amiable. But after all my dear sir, what are "all these considerations" to the purpose? Show that Jesus was as amiable and as good as the most vivid imagination can paint; nay, prove him to have been an angel from heaven, and it will not, it seems to me, at all tend towards demonstrating him to be the Messiah of the Old Testament, and if his religion was as mild as doves, and as beneficent as the blessed sun of heaven, still I might respectfully insist, that unless he answers to the description of the Messiah given in the Old Testament, it is all irrelevant, and "some prophecies" (or even one) unaccomplished, which it is expressly said should be accomplished at the appearance of the Messiah, are quite sufficient I conceive to nullify his claims.
In the 29th page you say that "the Gospels are something more than loose and idle rumours of events which happened in a distant age, and a distant nation. We have the testimony of men who were the associates of Jesus Christ; who received his instructions from his own lips and saw his works with their own eyes."
I presume that after what I have represented to Mr. Cary upon the subject of the Gospels according to Matthew and John, who know are the only Evangelists supposed to have heard with their ears, and seen with their eyes the doctrines and facts recorded in those books, you will be willing to allow, that this is very strong language. You observe in your note to p. 19, that the other writings of the New Testament, (except Luke, Acts, and Paul's Epistles) "may be all resigned, and our religion and its evidences will be unimpaired." This language too appears to me to be too strong, since if you give up all but the writings you mention we shall by no means have "the testimony of men who were the associates of Jesus Christ, who received his instructions from his own lips, and saw his works with their own eyes," for in giving up so much do you not resign the gospels according to Matthew and John?
2. It requires some softening I think on these accounts; since 1. Luke was not an eyewitness of the facts he records in his gospel, it is only a hearsay story. 2. It contradicts the other gospels.
3. It has been grossly interpolated.
4. The learned Professor Marsh in his dissertation upon the three first gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, (in his notes to Michaelis' Introduction to the N. T.) represents, and gives ingenious reasons to prove, that those gospels are Compilations from pre-existing documents, written by nobody knows who. So that the pieces from which the three first gospels were composed were, according to this Hypothesis, anonymous, and the gospels themselves written by we do not know what authors; and yet, you know sir, that these patch-work narratives of miracles have passed not only for credible, bat for inspired!
5. The Book of Acts was rejected by the Jewish Christians, as containing accounts untrue, and contradictory to their Acts of the Apostles. It was rejected also by the Encratites, and the Severians, and I believe by the Marcionites. The Jewish Christians were the oldest Christian Church, and they pronounced that the Book of Acts in our Canon was written by a partizan of Paul's; and it will be recollected that our Book of Acts is in fact, principally taken up in recording the travels and preaching of Paul, and contains little comparatively of the other Apostles. The Jewish Christians had a Book of Acts different from ours. And besides the fact, that the oldest Christian church, the mother church of Judea, with whom we should expect to find the truth if any where, rejected the Acts, Chrysostom Bishop of Constantinople, at the end of the 4th century, in a homily upon this Book says, that "not only the author and collector of the Book, but the Book itself was unknown to many." This mother church had not only a book of Acts of the apostles different from ours, but also a gospel of their own, called the gospel of the twelve apostles, which is supposed by the learned in important particulars to differ from ours. According to Augustine however, this gospel was publickly read in the churches as authentick for 300 years. This gospel in the opinion of Grabe, Mills, and other learned men, was written before the gospels now received as canonical. See Toland's Nazarenus.
6. The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, those to the Ephesians, and Colossians, are nearly proved to be apocryphal by Evanson, and about the rest there are some suspicious circumstances. You refer the reader of your Sermons in that note to Paley's Evidences, 9th chapter, for evidence for the authenticity of the rest of the gospels; but if the reader goes there he will find, that all the testimony Paley quotes for the first 200 years after Christ except that of Papias, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, (the value of whose testimony to the authenticity of the gospels, has been considered in the 16th ch. of my work; and which may further appear from these circumstances, that Irenaeus considered the Book of Hermas an inspired Scripture as much as he did the four gospels, and that Tertullian contended stoutly for the inspiration of the ridiculous book of Enoch, one of the most stupid forgeries that ever was seen,) the quotations and supposed allusions in the earlier fathers are uncertain, since it is acknowledged by Dodwell, and also by others, that it cannot be shown with any certainty, whether these quotations and allusions belong to ours or to apocryphal gospels. And to conclude, would you not require as much evidence for the authenticity of the gospels, which relate supernatural events, as we have for most of the classics, and yet if you examine the subject closely, you will be satisfied to your astonishment that we have not so much as we have for the works of Virgil or Cicero; and that we have not by a great deal so much testimony for the miracles of Jesus, which were supernatural events which require at least as great proof as natural ones as we have for the deaths of Pompey and of Julius Caesar, though you seem from your note to think otherwise. As to Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian, if they allowed the gospels to be genuine, they might have done so, and taken advantage of such an allowance to show that they could net, from their contradictions, have been written by men having a mission from the God of Truth. But Sir, is it certain that they did acknowledge it? Since the only fragments of their works upon Christianity we have remaining, are just such parts as their Christian answerers have picked out, and selected; the works themselves were carefully burned. And that these answerers have not acted fairly may be more than suspected, I think from a hint given us by Jerom, (which you will find in Dr. Middleton's Free Enquiry) that Origen in his answer to Celsus, sometimes fought the devil at his own weapons, i.e. lied for the sake of the truth; and it is notorious, that the Fathers of the church allowed this to be lawful, and practiced it abundantly. See the note at the end.
You allow in the 20th page that the sincerity of the propagators of opinions is no proof of their truth; and yet you seem to think, that the twelve apostles must have been correct, because the opinions they propagated were, you think, contrary to their prejudices as Jews. This argument cannot, I conceive, support the consequences you lay upon it, were it true that the apostles had abandoned their opinions as Jews about the nature of the Messiah's Kingdom. But I believe you will not be a little surprized, when I shall show you, that in preaching Jesus as the Messiah they did by no means adopt the very spiritual ideas you ascribe to them, but in fact believed that Jesus would soon return and "restore the Kingdom to Israel" in good earnest, and in a sense by no means spiritual. This argument, if I can establish it, you observe, sir, no doubt, must consequently subvert a very considerable part of your system, by which you endeavour to account for the discrepancies which you do allow as yet to subsist between the prophecies of the Messiah, and Jesus of Nazareth. I beseech you therefore to heed me carefully.
In Luke i. verse 32. The angel tells Mary that her son Jesus should be great, and be called: the son of the Highest and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Israel forever and to his kingdom there shall be no end, and in verse 67, &c. Zachariah, by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost too, thus praises God concerning Jesus "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he hath visited and redeemed his people, and he hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; as he spake by the month of his holy prophets which have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all that hate us, &c. that we being delivered from the hand of our enemies should serve him with holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our lives." [See the Original.] You see, sir the notion that these words allude to, they certainly appear to me to mean something else than deliverance from spiritual foes. See also in the 2d ch. 25 verse, where Simeon a man who was "looking for the consolation of Israel" and was full of the Holy Ghost, expresses similar sentiments. And Anna the prophetess also spake concerning Jesus to all who "were expecting deliverance in Jerusalem," i.e. undoubtedly deliverance from the Romans. The carnal ideas of the Apostles with regard to the nature of their Master's Kingdom, and their consequent expectations with regard to Jesus, before his crucifixion, are acknowledged; and in the 24th chapt. of Luke 21st v. they say in despair, "But we trusted that it had been he who should have redeemed Israel." And after the resurrection, and just before the ascension of Jesus, after they had been for forty days "instructed in the things pertaining to the kingdom of God," which was the same as that of the Messiah, by Jesus himself, they do not seem to have had the least idea of the metaphysical kingdom of modern Christians, for they ask him, "Lord wilt thou now (or at this time) restore the kingdom to Israel?" And his answer is, not that it should never be restored, but that "it was not for them to know the times, and the seasons," see Acts 1. And even after the day of Pentecost, ch. iii. verse 19, Peter tells the Jews to repent, that their sins may be blotted out "when the times of refreshing [i.e. of deliverance] shall come from the face of the Lord, and he shall send Jesus Christ [i.e. the Messiah] before preached, (or promised) unto you, whom the heavens must receive until the times of the restoration of all things which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began." From this we see, that the Apostles thought that Jesus was gone to heaven for a time, and was to return again [there is no mention whatever in the Prophets of a double coming of the Messiah] and fulfill the prophecies with regard to "the restoration of all things" to a paradisiacal state, and the temporal kingdom of the Messiah sitting upon the throne of David in Jerusalem, all which is contained in the words of "the holy prophets" which have been since the world began. And what sort of a kingdom it was to be will appear from the not very spiritual description of the reign of Jesus upon earth during the Millennium, described in the 20th chapter of Revelations, and not only so, but the author of that book represents the final, and permanent state of the blessed as fixed, not in heaven, as modern Christians suppose, but on a new earth, or the earth renewed, and in a superb city, called "the new Jerusalem."
In fact, the ideas of the twelve Apostles upon the subject of the kingdom of the Messiah were precisely as carnal as those of their unbelieving brethren of the Jewish nation. They believed, as has been shown abundantly in the 15th chapter of "The Grounds of Christianity Examined," that their Master Jesus would come again, as he had told them he would, in that generation, and perform for Israel all the glorious things promised; that he would come in a cloud with power and great glory, and all the holy angels with him; that many from the east, and from the west should sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in that kingdom; and that the disciples were to eat and drink at Jesus' table in his kingdom, and were to sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. The author of the book of Revelations, after describing the magnificence and felicity of Jesus' kingdom upon earth, represents him as saying that he should come quickly: and in the first chapters, that they who had pierced him should see him coming in the clouds. The Apostles, as appears from the epistles, were on tiptoe with expectation, and frequently assured their converts that "the Lord is at hand, the judge stood before the door, &c." And to conclude, Can you not now, sir, conceive, and guess the cause of the gradual disappearance of the Jewish Christians after "that generation had passed away?" The fact was, that the Jewish Christians never dreamed of that figment a spiritual Messiah. They expected that Jesus would come again in "that generation" as he had told them he would; he did not come; in consequence the Jewish Church, after waiting, and waiting a great while, dwindled into annihilation.