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Once, when the church, though a very feeble band, went forth against the whole world, with no defensive armor but that of righteousness, under no protection but that of God, wielding no weapon of offence but the sword of the Spirit, our doctrine was fully recognised, and carried out into action. And the strongest holds of the powers of darkness felt the first shock, to their deepest foundations: and the first clash of the opposing weapons, showed that the church wielded the sword of Michael, the touch of which neither keen nor solid could resist”-and one thing after another was brought down, and subdued to the obedience of Christ. At length, in an evil hour this armor was laid aside; one of earthly fabrication and temper was used in its stead; and the enemy recovered much of his lost dominion.
In these latter ages there has been a revival, in some measure, of the spirit of primitive Christianity; and the church is again heard to declare, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal.” Her ministers are seen going forth, as in the beginning, protected by the shield of faith, and wielding only the sword of the Spirit; and just in proportion as they do this, the kingdom of God is extended among men.
From this brief discussion may be drawn some principles of great importance to the general cause of Christian benevolence; and of course, to those particular interests which claim our attention on the present occasion.
1. RELIGION MAY BE MOST SUCCESSFULLY PROPAGATED, WHERE IT IS
PERFECTLY FREE FROM ALL
For, since religion has its seat in the soul, and is a matter of conviction and feeling, no man can possibly be a Christian, any farther than he voluntarily and heartily embraces the truth, and feels its sanctifying power.
But every man's heart rises in opposition to constraint. It is universally felt, that he who attempts to impose it, is doing what he has no right to do. And when even the truth itself is urged by human authority or force, it has to encounter not only the natural resistance of the corrupt heart, but the repugnance superadded by the absurd attempt to compel conviction and force the conscience. None can tell how much influence the church has lost by such preposterous measures.
Again; whenever religion is shackled by human policy, there is always some entangling alliance between it and “the powers that be.” The state, for instance, engages to support the church: but it is on the condition that the church will submit to the authority of the state. Now, the rulers of this world, generally, have purposes of their own to accomplish, by means of religion: so far they support it; but no farther. It enters not at all into their plans, to submit themselves and their greatness to the power of the gospel. Nor are they willing that its divine authority over others should be pushed too far. Accordingly the wily politician has always invented checks and balances, by which to lessen the force, and control the influence of Christian doctrines, and ordinances, and teachers. The most solemn rites of religion, connected as they are with truths of the most affecting and awful character,
have often been desecrated by an application to measures of state policy. The temporal head of the church prescribes the methods to be pursued for the promotion of piety: the officers of the church are appointed by patronage: no public prayers must be offered, no doctrine preached, but such as the ruling power has previously approved. Who does not see, that in this case, the main-spring of religious action is greatly weakened?
But if the nature of the alliance between state and church is such, that none are too high for her discipline; then every expedient, which long practice in the wiles of courts and stratagems of law can suggest, is resorted to, for the purpose of corrupting doctrine, and destroying discipline: and the state is felt as an incubus on the bosom of the church, causing her life-blood to stagnate, and diffusing a benumbing influence through every member.
The whole history of religion supports these positions; and fully warants the general conclusion, that although superstition may greatly prevail, where no religious liberty is enjoyed, yet evangelical piety most abounds where the freedom of religion is most fully secured.
But, while we “prize beyond all price" this privilege, we wish to be fully understood, when we speak of freedom of conscience. It is not the right to cast off all religious obligation, and live as we list; the right to set at nought the authority of God, and renounce allegiance to Heaven; to take from his
parental throne the father of all; to make the universe without object or end, and man a being without hope, or reason of existence;-in a word, it cannot
mean a right to have no conscience at all.—Nevertheless, it is admitted, that if one resolves so to degrade his own nature, and blight all his best hopes, and suppress all his finest feelings, he can do so;and if no overt act of his disturb the order and peace of society, there is no rightful authority in man, to inflict punishment to restrain these baleful opinions. Religion disowns all carnal weapons for arresting even these portentous evils-She opposes them only by truth and love.
But by freedom of conscience we mean, the unrestrained enjoyment, by one who feels his obligations to his gracious and almighty Maker, of the right to worship him according to his convictions of truth and duty; and to do whatever he may think incumbent on him, both in his individual and social capacity, for promoting piety and good will on earth: provided that in so doing, he interferes not with the rights of others.
Now, when this is the happy lot of the Christian, he is precisely in the condition to feel, in full force, all the powerful motives of Christianity. Believing the Bible to be God's truth, without mixture of error, he feels as though God were speaking in his word, directly to his conscience; the truth comes to him clothed with divine authority; and no inventions of men intervene to lessen its force. The awe of God's majesty pervades him; the sanctions of eternity press his conscience; the worth of the soul, the misery of fallen man, a Saviour's redeeming love, the joys of salvation, the glories of heaven, the horrors of perdition, apply their highest and holiest stimuli to his heart. Yet fully understanding that God's
religion is a religion of beneficent action, his excitement is not expended in mere effusions of feeling, but in doing good—the utmost possible good. The truths of the gospel, in all their awful grandeur and eternal majesty, are his motives; the honor of his Redeemer, and the happiness of his fellow-men, are his objects.
Now this is precisely the condition contemplated by the Apostle, when he says, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty.” The Christian freeman is not only, as was said, in a situation to feel the fullest power of Christian motives; but is accustomed to act under their influence. His whole course is one of voluntary agency, prompted by enlightened views of truth, and a deep feeling of its value.--He understands the worth of religion for himself, his family, his country, the world:-and, therefore, cheerfully bestows his money, his time, and his influence, to support religious institutions, and enlarge the sphere of Christian benevolence. It is all, with him, a matter of deep reflection; of profound consideration of human interests; of hearty good will.
Similar views and feelings draw men together. They take counsel, deliberate calmly, and act in concert, under convictions of truth and duty. They act too with energy.
The power of eternal truth conspires with the vigor of voluntary action; the whole strength is put forth in every effort-and the labor is not in vain. The history of Bible and Missionary Societies, as voluntary associations, formed within the last thirty years, shows, better than a thousand arguments, the truth and value of our principle. And, here brethren, is the true secret of