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THE following Letters are addressed to the friends of vital and practical religion, because the author is persuaded that the very essence of true piety is concerned in this controversy; and that godly men are the only proper judges of divine truth, being the only humble, upright, and earnest inquirers after it. So far from thinking, with Dr. Priestley, that "an unbiassed temper of mind is attained in consequence of becoming more indifferent to religion in general, and to all the modes and doctrines of it;" he is satisfied that persons of that description have a most powerful bias against the truth. Though it were admitted, that false principles, accompanied with a bigoted attachment to them, are worse than none; yet he cannot admit, that irreligious men are destitute of principles. He has no notion of human minds being unoccupied or indifferent he that is not a friend to religion in any mode, is an enemy to it in all modes; he is a libertine; he doeth evil, and therefore, hateth the light. And shall we compliment such a character, by acknowledging him to be in "a favourable situation for distinguishing between truth and falsehood?"* God forbid! It is he that doeth his will, that shall know of his doctrine. The humble, the candid, the upright inquirers after truth, are the persons who are likely to find it; and to them the author takes the liberty to appeal.
The principal occasion of these Letters was, the late union among Protestant Dissenters, in reference to civil affairs, having been the source of various misconception, and, as the writer apprehends, improved as a mean of disseminating Socinian principles. In the late application to Parliament, for the repeal of the Cor
* Discourses on Various Subjects, p. 95.
poration and Test Acts, the Dissenters have united, without any respect to their doctrinal principles. They considered themselves as applying merely for a civil right; and that, in such an application, difference in theological sentiment had no more concern than it has in the union of a nation under one civil head or form of government.
This union, however, has become an occasion of many reflections. Serious men of the Established Church have expressed their surprise, that some Dissenters could unite with others, so opposite in their religious principles; and, had the union been of a religious nature, it must, indeed have been surprising. Others have supposed, that the main body of Dissenters had either imbibed the Socinian system, or were hastily approaching towards it. Whether the suggestion of Dr. Horsley, that "the genuine Calvinists, among our modern Dissenters, are very few," has contributed to this opinion, or, whatever be its origin, it is far from being just. Every one who knows the Dissenters, knows that the body of them are what is commonly called orthodox. Dr. Priestley, who is well known to be sufficiently sanguine, in estima ting the numbers of his party; so sanguine, that, when speaking of the common people of this country, he reckons "nine out of ten of them would prefer a Unitarian to a Trinitarian liturgy ;"* yet acknowledges, in regard to the Dissenters, that Unitarians are by far the minority. In Birmingham, where the proportion of their number, to the rest of the Dissenters, is greater than in any town in the kingdom, it appears, from Dr. Priestley's account of the matter, that those called orthodox are nearly three to one and throughout England and Wales, they have been supposed to be "as two, if not as three to one, to the Socinians and Arians inclusive."
If Dr. Horsley found it necessary, in support of his cause, to overturn Dr. Priestley's assertion, that "great bodies of men do
* Defence of Unitarianism, for 1786, p. 61.
+ See Dr. Priestley's Familiar Letters to the Inhabitants of Birmingham, Letters III. XI. Also, Mr. Parry's Remarks on the Resolutions of the Warwick Meeting.
not change their opinions in a small space of time;" some think he might have found an example more to his purpose, than that of the body of Dissenters having deserted their former principles, in the well-known change of the major part of the Church of England; who, about the time of Archbishop Laud, went off from Calvinism to Arminianism. Had this example been adduced, his antagonist might have found some difficulty in maintaining his ground against him; as it is an undoubted fact, and a fact which he himself acknowledges, with several others of the kind, in the Third of his Familiar Letters to the Inhabitants of Birmingham.
The supposition, however, of the Dissenters being generally gone, or going off, to Socinianism, though far from just, has not been without its apparent grounds. The consequence which Socinians have assumed, in papers and pamphlets which have been circulated about the country, has afforded room for such a supposition. It has not been very uncommon for them to speak of themselves, as THE DISSENTERS, THE MODERN DISSENTERS, &c. It was said, in a paper that was published more than once, "The ancient, like the Modern Dissenters, worshipped one God; they hnew nothing of the Nicene or Athanasian creeds." The celebrated authoress of The Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts, is not clear in this matter. That otherwise admirable performance is tinged with pride of party consequence. "We thank you, gentlemen," she says, for the compliment paid to DISSENTERS, when you suppose, that the moment they are eligible to places of power and profit, all such places will ot once be filled with them. We had not the presumption to imagine, that, inconsiderable as we are in numbers, compared to the Established Church; inferior, too, in fortune and influence; labouring, as we do, under the frowns of the court and THE ANATHEMA OF THE ORTHODOX; we should make our way so readily into to the recesses of royal favour." Even the Monthly Reviewers, though they have borne testimony against mingling doctrinal disputes with those of the repeal of the Test laws;* yet, have sometimes spoken of Dissenters and Socin
* Monthly Review Enlarged, Vol. I. p. 233.
ians, as if they were terms of the same meaning and extent. "It appears to us as absurd," they say, "to charge the religious principles of THE DISSENTERS with republicanism, as it would be to advance the same accusation against the Newtonian philosophy. The doctrine of gravitation may as well be deemed dangerous to the state, as SOCINIANISM.
Is it unnatural, from such representations as these, for those who know but little of us, to consider the Socinians as constituting the main body of the Dissenters; and the Calvinists as only a few stragglers, who follow these leading men at a distance in all their measures; but whose numbers and consequence are so small, that even the mention of their names among Protestant Dissenters, may very well be omitted?
This, however, as it only affects our reputation, or, at most, can only impede the repeal of the Test laws, by strengthening a prejudice, too strong already, against the whole body of Dissenters, might be overlooked. But this is not all it is pretty evident, that the union among us, in civil matters, has been improved for the purpose of disseminating religious principles. At one of the most public meetings for the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts, as the author was credibly informed, Socinian peculiarities were advanced, which passed unnoticed, because those of contrary principles did not choose to interrupt the harmony of the meeting, by turning the attention of gentlemen from the immediate object for which they were assembled. What end could Dr. Priestley have, in introducing so much about the Test Act, in his controversy with Mr. Burn, on the person of Christ, except it were to gild the pill, and make it go down the easier with Calvinistic Dissenters ?
The writer of these Letters does not blame the Dissenters of his own persuasion for uniting with the Socinians. In civil matters, he thinks it lawful to unite with men, be their religious principles what they may but he, and many others, would be very sorry, if a union of this kind should prove an occasion of abating our zeal for those religious principles which we consider as being of the very essence of the gospel.
Review for June, 1790, p. 247.