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ON CREEDS, CONTROVERSY, AND THE IN
FLUENCE OF RELIGIOUS SYSTEMS ON
DANIEL xii. 4.
Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall
In the preceding Lectures we have attempted to exhibit that great apostacy in the Church, designated by the term Antichrist, in its nature and extent, as consisting in unscriptural faith and worship, superstitious practices and spiritual tyranny, and affecting, in various degrees, not only the Church of Rome and the Eastern Church, but also the different Protestant sects, and in this country both the Establishment and Dissenters. To this has been opposed what I consider the unadulterated gospel, sacred and eternal truth, approved by reason and declared in Scripture, a system fostered by inquiry, almost identified with religious liberty, and eminently favourable to piety, benevolence, and happiness. I have now to shew the advance which this
system has made, and the means by which that progress has been effected, and will be continued till Unitarianism become again co-extensive with Christianity; which occupies the present Lectures and prepares us for contemplating afterwards, the strength of regenerated Christianity, to restrain and ultimately abolish that greatest of evils, war; and thus conduct mankind towards perfection. For this purpose, the terms of the subject of this Lecture were selected. The influence of religious systems on society, is that which makes their discussion of importance; creeds, and their accompaniments, are commonly the intrenchments which error throws up for her defence; and controversy is the chief agency by which those barriers are demolished; truth elicited and diffused; and, consequently, the church purified and the world improved. These topics will be kept in view, and involved in most of the remarks I shall make this evening, though without aiming, for reasons before assigned, at giving them either a distinct or a complete discussion. . . He must be a very careless reader of either ancient or modern history, who does not at once see that religion has, in all times and countries, operated with great force on the condition of man. Not only does it affect the moral character, by supposing, or creating a standard of duty, and exciting fears of punishment, or hopes of recompence, in futurity; but it is also one of the
first among the causes by which nations have risen to refinement, knowledge, and power, or been retained in, or plunged into ignorance and barbarism. It has steeled them for the atrocities of war, or disposed them for the milder arts and joys of peace; it has coiled around them the serpent folds of the chain of vassalage, or beamed the heavenly light of liberty; and has been, according to the spirit of its institutions, the glory or the ruin of mightiest empires. : There are four classes of men, aiming at some sort of sway over others, who have always, by their conduct, given evidence of their vivid perception of the vast influence of religion on society, and who have eagerly grasped it as a machine to effect their purposes.
1. Legislators have invoked its aid to sanction their institutions when in infancy, to second them in operation, and make up by public veneration for their weakness when declining by antiquity. The learned and acute, though often paradoxical, author of the Divine Legation of Moses, has done much towards "proving that Moses was the only lawgiver of all antiquity who did not enforce his edicts by connecting with them some explicit reference to a future state of rewards and punishments. Generally they pretended to a divine
revelation. The original laws of Egyptians, Athe- nians, Spartans, Romans, Chinese, Peruvians, Goths, Arabians, and many other nations, were all, according to their authors, inspired by some guardian god or gods. They pretended acquaintance with the gods : the fact was, they knew human nature.
2. The poet aims at power, as well as the lawgiver, though of a different kind, He would controul the hearts of men; reign in their imaginations ; command their tears; win their smiles; and enjoy a transient immortality in their me, mory and praises. The earliest poetry was that of devotion. Harps were first strung in honour of gods; and even the dramą itself, in Greece, was but a gorgeous sacrifice. Its revival was similar to its origin, and is traced to the mysteries which monks performed on Church festivals, in which they united the effect of decoration and exhibition with that of poetry, describing the creation of the world, or the crucifixion and resurrection of the Redeemer. The great majority of poets have employed religion in attempting to reach that empire over the feelings of which they are so ambitious,
3. Orators have usually had recourse to similar means for a similar purpose. The great pleaders of antiquity, whose names are identified with this art, frequently used religion to play on the pas sions of their auditors, We commonly find it introduced in those speeches which are recorded to have had the greatest effect. The most sceptical have employed it for impression in their eloquence. In later days we have had splendid
declamations, and successful ones too, about the throne and the altar, from some who cared about the throne but for the sake of its trappings, and worshipped at no altars but those raised to their own interest or vanity.
4. Impostors of various classes, pretended prophets, priests, pontiffs, conquerors, have done homage to the power of religion over society by appealing to it in the breasts of the multitudes whom they have cajoled, or plundered, or trampled under foot. Infidelity has sometimes lurked in lawn, and chuckled at its gains beneath the triple crown. In many instances, besides that of Mahomet, has fanaticism sharpened the sword of conquest. So much art is not wasted in counterfeiting trifles. Such men would not have cared for the name of religion, had it not been a passport to power, wealth, or fame. .. : '. The effects of religion, true or false, are chiefly produced by two means. It influences the mind by the belief of its creed, and the habits by its
institutions and observances. Both are usually 'employed, although in very different proportions. The religions of ancient Egypt, of Hindostan, of Greece, and in a less degree Mahometanism, had more of ceremony than of faith : Christianity has more of faith than of ceremony, which indeed it employs but little, if at all. In Judaism they are combined, but ceremony seems to preponderate. Popery is a religion of ceremony compared with