« AnteriorContinua »
thodox Dissenters greatly exceed their opinions or the conduct of our oppoopponents; but the congregations of nents, who must be judged by the the latter usually contain a larger pro- same test as ourselves, and may, perportion of persons of wealth and re- haps, have an equal chance of being finement: it is to be observed, how- in the right. In the course of any ever, that these do not abound in the experience, I have found persons of congregations of either party. In zeal all parties who discourse upon relifor their respective tenets they inay be gious topics with as much confidence considered as pretty equally inatched, as if they were capable of a mathemaas they are in providing active means tical demonstration; and, in accordfor their diffusion; but they differ in ance with this feeling, they expect the degree of importance which they their opinions to be received as impliattach to them. The orthodox are citly as if they were not as much a very generally agreed in consigning matter of inquiry to others as to over their adversaries to endless per- themselves. This spirit of dogmatism dition, on account of their misbelief; is as injurious to truth, as it is offenwhilst the innocency of mental error sive to good sense, and repugnant to is as strenuously contended for by the those kindly feelings which it is the other party. Bigotry is a vice of little interest of every one to cherish. There minds, and to be found more or less is one Being alone to whom we must in all parties. Education does much render an account of the use or abuse to soften its asperity, but an inter- of our talents, and we have no authocourse with the world does more; and rity to usurp his judgment-seat. If those whose minds are liberalized by we would gain an crring brother, we philosophy feel the least of its influ- must treat him neither with hatred ence. Although there is nothing in nor reproach, nor hunt him from sonature more truly contemptible, yet ciety : this would only convert him there are few vices, perhaps, that so into an enemy, and confirm him in generally predominate amongst the his error. But we must shew our professors of religion.
regard for his welfare by acts of kindIn an inquiry of this nature, it might ness; and, in short, encourage the very naturally be expected that the same feelings towards him which we writer should enter into some farther would wish to excite in others towards particulars respecting the present cha- ourselves, under similar circumstances. racter and condition of the different Man is a dependent creature, and Dissenting parties. But, besides the this reciprocity of action is as much length to which these pages have ex. a matter of personal interest as it is tended, there are other reasons which of duty. would induce him to be very brief Upon looking into the state of parupon this subject. In forming opi- ties, the first thing that strikes us is nions of religious sects, there is always the disappearance of the Presbyterian danger of being warped by prejudice, denomination, which was formerly the a disease from which the most mode. glory of Nonconformity, and has now rate cannot always escape. Every one nearly vanished amongst English Diswho identifies himself with a party, senters. This result may be trared must feel a partiality for it to a cer- to various causes, but chiefly perhaps tain extent, and a corresponding dis- to the doctrinal differences that took taste to its opponents. This will be place in the early part of the last cen. more particularly the case when the tury. At that time, many learned mind is undisciplined, or thrown off and reflecting men, chiefly amongst its guard, or when the passions be- the Presbyterian Dissenters, thought come heated by enthusiasm. But, they saw sufficient ground for departunder the influence of happier cir- ing from the standard of reputed orthocumstances, it is next to impossible doxy, not only as it respected the tenets to speak without offence. It is very of Calvinism, but also upon the doctrue, that, consistently with that de- trine of the Trinity. Some of these cided attachment which every person embraced the Arian hypothesis, others must and ought to feel for the con- the Sabellian, and many at length bevictions of his own mind, it by no came (in the epithet once in vogue) means follows that there is any neces- Socinians. The divines who contrisity for anisrepresenting either the buted most effectually to the diffusion
An Essay on the Causes of the Decline of Nonconformity. 391 of these opinions were, Lardner, Ben- sons of every shade of religious opison, Taylor, of Norwich, Bourn, nion, but the reputedly, orthodox of Birmingham, Cardale, Price and greatly preponderate, and of these Priestley. The popular favour being also, many are Antinomians. on the side of the orthodox, the Besides the parties just mentioned, preachers of the then new opinions there is a very large class of persons soon grew unpopular, their congrega- who take the benefit of the Act of tions declined, and several of them at Toleration, and worship in licensed length became extinct. At the same chapels, but who have no other pretime, the orthodox Dissenters, owing tension to the title of Dissenters. The to a variety of other causes, had been motives that bring together these rapidly declining, until the preaching heterogeneous masses are of the most of the Methodosts threw new life and 'miscellaneous kind. Some are attractvigour into the cause. It is a remark- ed by a favourite preacher; others by able circumstance, that the heterodox convenience of neighbourhood; but Dissenters should have experienced a the prevailing motive appears to be a * revival from a similar quarter. The preference for what is called evangelisecession of Mr. Lindsey and some cal preaching, administered in a more other clergymen from the Established familiar and popular manner than is Church, about half a century ago, gave to be found in the generality of parish rise to the establishment of a new sect, churches. In many of these places, composed of persons of various opi- which are large and handsomely fitted nions in ecclesiastical matters, but up, the worship is conducted agreeably uniting in the rejection of the popular to the liturgy and ceremonies of the belief concerning the Trinity. With Church of England; and in many of these, the Presbyterian Dissenters gra- them the service is performed by episdually united, and they adopted a new copally ordained clergymen. There are name, expressive of a prominent arti- not a few of these places that have been cle of their faith, by which they are built by needy adventurers, and solely now usually distinguished.
with a view to profit. In such cases, The orthodox Pædobaptist Dis- the first object has been to procure senters having become amalgamated, popular preachers, in order to raise in a great measure, with the Calvinis- large congregations, and by means of tic Methodists, partake very much of pew-rents to provide an income for the same character; and it may be the speculator. The effect of the sysremarked generally, concerning the tem has been greatly to multiply the union, that whilst it has raised the number of religious professors, who standard of Methodism, it has pro- have thrown their weight into the portionably depressed that of Inde- scale of the orthodox party, and have pendency. The discipline of the latter given a kind of fashionable popularity is now but little regarded in many to the profession of religion. Its congregations, and in others, the very aspect upon the Church of England name is become extinct. As they may be considered as rather favourhave several acaderies for training able than otherwise, and will probably young men to the ministry, many of continue so as long as the Act of Toleratheir pastors are taken from thence; tion shall remain untouched. If there but these resources are far from being is any principle which these seceders sufficient to supply the continual de- bold in cominon with the Dissenters, mand. Many of their ministers, there- it is one in which they are themselves fore, are without education, but having equally interested, viz. a liberty of acquired a talent for mystifying reli- preaching, and a liberty of hearing gion, and for familiarizing it with without any restraint by the state. the multitude, they become popular. By the efforts of the non-descript perMost of the congregations thus situ- sons just referred to, united with those ated may be considered direct Antino- of the regular Dissenters, the Wesleian mians. The Baptists, owing to the Methodists, and the various societies nature of their distinguishing tenet, set on foot for the dissemination of have continued a separate body, and religion, the number of places regisarc probably more numerous now than tered for religious worship during the at any former period; at least since last 30 years, is so prodigious as to the Revolution. They comprise per- give an imposing effect to the cause of Dissent and to raise a considerable ever, as this may appear, ånd injurious aların within the bosom of the National as it is to the prosperity of the DisChurch. The consequence has been, senting interest, a little acquaintance that the clergy in some places have with mankind will furnish' us with put forth more zeal and industry; sufficient reasons to account for it. whilst others, less prudent and less en- Here, let it be remembered, that Dislightened, have betrayed symptoms of senters are made of the same sort of that intolerance which always attaches materials as other people, and that itself to a richly-endowed and lordly there is nothing so peculiar in the hierarchy. Their apprehensions, how. nature of their principles as to detach ever, may be stayed; for the tolerated them from the rest of society, or to sects are too much disunited both in prevent them from taking that station principle and in affection to admit of in it which the accidents of life may any coalition for the purpose of pro- have assigned to them. When Dissencuring the downfal of the Established ters acquire property, their intercourse Church, Whenever such an event with the world most usually becomes may take place, it will be the work of enlarged. If they have children, they society at large.
feel a laudable desire to introduce From the foregoing remarks, it may them into society, and they naturally be inferred that a reference to the select that class of it which is best number of edifices devoted to religious adapted to their improvement. Having worship, and to the crowded congre. received an ornamental as well as a gations that attend them, will afford useful education, they find but few but little clue to the real state of the associates to their taste in dissenting Dissenting interest. If ive extract congregations, and are soon disgusted from the general mass those who con- by the familiarity and rudeness of lowscientiously dissent from the doctrines, bred persons, who presume upon their discipline or constitution of the Church supposed spiritual attainments. This of England, the number of such per- aversion is farther strengthened by sons will probably be found much the unnecessary austerity assumed by smaller than is generally apprehended; many religious persons, especially probably much more so than at the when advanced in years ; so that, upon period of the Revolution. If the ques- the earliest opportunity they throw tion be viewed with reference to the aside the fetters that restricted their increased population of the country, youthful enjoyments. It being the the gain has been decidedly in favour fashion amongst wealthy persons to of the Church of England. But the train their children to learned profesdeclension of Nonconformity has been sions, similar pursuits bring them in most visible in the quality of its adhe- contact with persons belonging to the rents, it having been deserted by almost Establishment; and rising in life they every family of rank or influence in are called to fill stations which are society. It is true, that in cities and incompatible with the profession of large manufacturing towns the cause dissent, or which, at any rate, render is still supported by a few opulent them unfit associates for the bulk of merchants and tradesmen, and here persons who compose dissentiug conand there by a professional man; but gregations. Others are brought togeit is undeniable that dissenting congre- ther by the concerns of business, which gations are generally composed of per- occasion the formation of private sons in humble life, and this is almost friendships; and the desire which peowholly the case in small towns and ple usually manifest to form alliances villages.
in the same station of life, only aggraIt has been often remarked as a vates the evil. subject of regret, that when Dissenters A farther obstruction to the profesgrow rich or succeed to an inheritance, sion of Nonconformity may be referred they commonly go over to the Church. to the qualifications of its teachers, to To whatever cause it may be owing, the mode of their teaching, and to the it is certainly a curious fact, that a quality of the religion that is taught wealthy dissenting family is but rarely in many congregations. Upon a subknown to continue stedfast in the ject surrounded by so much combustiprinciples of Nonconformity for more ble matter, I shall be very brief; but than two generations. Singular, how the importance which it bears upon An Essay on the Causes of the Decline of Nonconformity. 393 the inquiry will not allow of its being be rolled away. Ignorance is the overlooked altogether. It must be parent both of pride and intolerance; acknowledged, that amongst the Dis- and when clothed in the garb of piety, senters are to be found some men of often passes current in the world for sterling talents, and every way quali- genuine Christianity. But when relified to the expounders of religion. gion becomes thus debased, as the But it is equally notorious that these profession of it is in too many instances are thinly scattered, and confined amongst Dissenters, we are not to chiefly to large cities; that many of wonder if they are shunned by persons their congregations are served by men of good taste and refined manners. as ignorant as their hearers; and that, Although death levels all distinction of those who have been educated at of ranks, and in the grave the rich and their private academies, a large pro- the poor, the wise and the ignorant, portion come forth into the world meet together; yet whilst we live in with all the defects of half-learned the world, we must submit to the laws pedants, raised into imaginary impor- by which it is governed, and consent tance, which is fostered by the cha- to take the station marked out for us racter of their people. It is a misfor. by Providence. The fences of society tune to the Dissenters, that their richer are not to be broken down by innagi. members but rarely bring up their nary notions of spiritual rank. Let sons to the ministry. The consequence religion be rather employed in the is, that being taken from inferior sta- real amelioration of man in his present tions, they are, in most cases, wholly state, whilst we enlarge the boundadependent upon their people for sup- ries of his hope in another world. port; and this is often very precarious. Another thing that operates to the Whilst
upon the subject of pecuniary disadvantage of the Dissenters is the compensation, it may not be amiss to mode of admission into their churches, observe that, with some few excep- which, amongst the orthodox, is well tions, the Dissenters have been defici- known to be through the door of ent in that liberality to their ministers, an experience; that is, a recital of to which the nature of their services, their opinions, feelings and religious and the station which they occupy in impressions. This is either written society, so justly entitle them. And or verbal, and is submitted to the this may have been one reason that judgment of the whole church at one has deterred many from entering upon of their private meetings. The candi. that profession, or from continuing in date for membership has previously it, who would have been ornaments to passed through the same ordeal at his the Dissenters.
own house, before the ministers and Dissenting congregations, in most deacons, who report thereon to the places, consisting chiefly of tradesmen, church; and if they think him sound mechanics, and persons in humble in the faith, or, as they express it, life, the management of their tempo- “ in a state of grace,” he is admitted. ral affairs consequently devolves upon Now, if we consider upon what sort them; and the dissensions that so fre- of hands the management of this busiquently arise, may be often traced to ness usually devolves, it inust always this equality of condition between the operate as an exclusion to men of governors and the governed. It is as sense and education. For, admitting unfortunate for the peace as for the that religion is equally adapted to all respectability of Dissenters, that they classes of society, yet it may be fairly have not a few persons of education argued that the inode of administering and influence to take the lead in their it should be such as to give no unnecongregations, and give a tone to the cessary offence, either to good taste manners of the rest. Much discord or to sound discretion. In the present would be thereby prevented; a greater state of society, and particularly of degree of liberality would be thrown the Dissenters, it seems impolitic to over their concerns; the pride of require any farther terms for commuignorance would be repressed ; and nion than those in which all Christians much of the reproach that lies at the agree. By narrowing the conditions, door of the professors of religion on we exclude many persons of worth account of their self-importance, would and respectability, and compel them
to seek for religious instruction else- to sink the importance of their cause. where.
If the profession of Nonconformity is The decline of the Dissenting inter- destined again to flourish, it must be est may be farther traced to the identified with civil liberty, and then advancement of science and literature, the friends of the latter will be its which has rendered men indifferent to firmest supporters. the forms of religion, and in some A Dissenter, whatever may be his thecases doubtful of its reality altogether. ological opinions, or however strongly This disposition has been encouraged he may feel the supreme importance by the enthusiastic pretences which of religion, is eminently a political have been mixed up too much with the character, being made so by the state. profession of Christianity, as well as by It is his duty, therefore, never to lose the little attention that has been paid sight of his situation, nor to forego by Dissenters in general to such sub- any fair opportunity for urging its jects as are calculated to improve the amelioration. In order to inoculate intellectual and political condition of society with just sentiments, he should mankind. By neglecting to take ad-frequently bring forward for discus. vantage of the improvements of the sion such' topics as the injustice and age, and thus to render the profession impolicy of penal laws upon account of Nonconformity respectable in the of religion; the impropriety of conworld, they have been left with the necting Christianity with the state, and dregs of society, whilst their enemies thereby rendering it subservient 10 have carried away the palm of supe- political purposes; the distinct objects riority.
of religion and of civil government; But, perhaps, nothing tends more the irreligious tendency of test laws; to the disparagement of the Dissenters the incongruity of a lordly hierarely than their political condition, the pro- with the simplicity of a Christian fession of Nonconformity rendering church, to which it is an expensive them liable to certain civil disabilities, incumbrance; the inutility, for purfrom which the favoured sect is ex- poses of instruction and pastoral inempt. That they are usually identified spection, of a system that patronizes with the opponents of government is pluralities and non-residences; the not at all surprising, but it ought not hypocrisy of educating men for a to be charged upon them as a crime; cure of souls, when the real purpose for, setting aside reasons of con- is to amass wealth, and to obtain science, it would be absurd to suppose political influence; the oppressive nathey can entertain any kind feeling for ture of tithes, and their injurious effect a set of men who first trample upon upon the clerical character; the absurd their political rights, and then charge mixture of Jewish, Popish and Prothem with disaffection. The oppres- testant worship in the English ritual; sion to which they have been so long the sectarian nature and unchristian subject in this respect, has so far spirit of the publicly-authorized creeds; tinctured the prejudices of society, as together with such other points as to occasion an artificial circle to be may suggest themselves, in order to drawn around them, excluding them shew the inefficacy of the present very much from the intercourse of ecclesiastical system for the purposes life with persons of a similar station for which it is so amply endowed. in the Established Church. Having The examples of Greece and Rome, no political influence, they are an and other ancient nations, have been object of contempt with the govern- cited as precedents to justify the civil ment, any farther than they can be. patronage of religion, and the prosecome the instruments of its own pur- cution of opposite opinions. But, not pose. It is to be lamented that the to take notice of the impropriety of orthodox Dissenters have never been the parallel drawn between Pagan and sufficiently alive to their political rights. Christian institutions, it would be diffiThe apathy they have discovered upon cult to shew any warrant for the thing such subjects, from the ridiculous in either case, beyond that of statenotion that they are to be occupied policy. The existence of religion does only by concerns of a religious nature, not require it; for, supposing it to be has tended to debase the quality, and of divine origin, and under the protec