Imágenes de páginas
[ocr errors]

sequences which were to result from its institution ; and the apparent failure of some of these predictions may perhaps have been mistaken for a partial failure of success, as respects the object of the Institution itself. The enthusiasm of some wellmeaning persons, has led them to describe the era of the Bible Society, as the dawn of millennial concord and holiness, and nankind have been complimented on the attainment of a degree of intellectual light and moral perfection, to which, in fact, they have made no visible approximation. These predictions, to say the least of them, are highly injudicious. There is a class of men, upon whom they are calculated to have the effect of unmeaning puerilities; to awake in their minds an undue proportion, perhaps, of displeasure, because they are men unaccustomed to surrender themselves to the pleasures of so amiable a credality, and are therefore apt to resent, as though it were a designed attempt

impose upon their understanding, the splendid misrepresentations which the language of Scripture is sometimes ill-employed to establish 4. The tendency of the Bible Society we believe to be that of unmingled good : 80 excellent are its incidental and indirect effects ou society, that the very means partake of the character of an efficient benefit, independently of their subserviency to the ultimate object. The occasion which it affords for the expression of mutual charity and good will, on the part of Christians of differing sentiments and interests on subordinate points, deserves to be considered as one admirable feature of the system ; but here again some degree of mistake as to the fact, has naturally enough connected itself with some unreasonableness of expectation.

Mr. Owen, in narrating the circumstances attending the formation of the Society, represents his own emotions at witnessing the harmonious co-operation of Christians of different denominations, to be such as he would not attempt to describe.

Surrounded by a multitude of Christians, whose doctrinal and ual differences had for ages kept them asunder, and who had been taught to regard each other with a sort of pious estrangement, or rather of consecrated hostility; and reflecting on the object and the end which had brought them so harmoniously together; he felt an impression, which the lapse of more than ten years had scarcely diminished, and which no length of time will entirely remove. The scene was new; nothing analogous to it had perhaps been exhibited before the public since Christians had begun to organize among each other the strife of separation, and to carry into their own camp that war which they ought to have waged in concert against the common enemy. To the author it appeared to indicate the dawn of a new era in Christendom; and to portend something like the return of those auspicious days, when the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul;" and when, as a consequence of that union, to a certain degree at least, the Word of God mightily grew and prevailed.'

p. 14.

We have attended many subsequent meetings of the kind, and uniformly with emotions of heart-felt satisfaction ; but we canpot allow Mr. Owen, as an author, to bear us along with the impulse of his feelings, in the same manner as we have often suffered ourselves with delight to go along with him as an eloquent speaker. The novelty of the scene which he describes, as awaking these strong emotions, arose in a measure from his previous want of acquaintance with the principles of other institutions. The British and Foreign Bible Society was not by any means the first society which was founded on the catholic principle of embracing all denominations of the religious world. The Society for promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor, established in 1750, has always numbered clergymen of the Establishment and ministers of different communions, among its managers. The London Missionary Society was instituted on a similar plan. Indeed, it is only by restricting our reference to societies baving an expressly religious object, and to the union of Clergymen and Dissenting Ministers as such, that the representation has any correctness. The distinguisbing excellence of the British and Foreign Bible Society, it ought to be clearly understood, consists, not in the novelty of its plan, but in the disencumbered simplicity of its object, which rendered this plan practicable to an extent to which no previous plan bad ever been carried; while its unequivocal importance and national utility invited the co-operation, not only of all denominatiuns of the religious public, but of every well-wisher to his country The Society did not and could not create the moral feeling which is the basis of union. It sprang from that feeling ; it was shaped by circumstances previously existing ; but inasmuch as it presented in the object of the Institution the discovery of a neutral ground on which this union could be universally realized, it seemed to partake of the nature of a cause, while it was only a consequence.

It is however absurd to expect, that any plans and schemes of co-operation, are to have the marvellous effect of transforming men's characters and dispositions, so as to terminate the religious, or rather political differences, which keep them asunder. The persuns who expect that any such consequences will result from the Bible Society, must mean, if they reflect on what they are saying, that such consequences are the genuine result of the principles which the distribution of the Bible is calculated to disseminate. That the Bible is adequate to produce this effect, we firmly believe; and we are authorized to hope that, notwithstanding the very doubtful appearances of the present times, the obstacles to the cordial union of all good men, will at length yield to the prevalence of the spirit of Christianity, and that the Church of Christ will exhibit an aspect more visibly correspondent with the predictions respecting its spiritual glory. It may, however, be reasonably doubted, whether even at that period, the strife of separation' will altogether cease throughout Christendom,' and the Church and the World dwell together in peaceful uniformity. The sincere affection which ought mutually to unite and characterize the disciples of Christ, is a principle wholly distinct from the charity which comprehends all mankind. The basis and the limitation of Christian union are laid in an agreement of sentiment respecting the essential points of religious belief. The sphere of benevolence extends beyond the pale of the Church : it embraces the circumference of the World.

Whensoever these remote consequences of the Bible Society shall take place, we may be assured that the change will not be confined to the civil intercourse of Christians of different denominations : it will relate to the characters of men. It will consist, not in the charity that evaporates in a speech, or adjourns its operation with the business of the meeting ; nor in any unusual elevation of mind into which the individual is so far surprised, as to have his prejudices borne down by the tide of

emotion; nor in any legal fiction or compact, by which the feel.ings of jealousy are for the time bound over to keep the peace :

but in a sense more generally diffused of the nothingness of political distinctions ; a spirit of mutual tolerance and mutual respect; in a word, a greater conformity in Christian men to the temper of Christ. Such a change is a very different thing from a scheme of co-operation which may be endangered by a breach of courtesy, and which requires that all the nicety of political etiquette, should be observed, in order to guard against its violation. That scheme, how excellent soever in itself, how pleasing soever considered as a fact; is not to be mistaken for a change, or even for the sign of a change, in the moral temper of society.

It is not then to be wondered. at, that men of sober habits of observation, who are conversant with facts of an opposite description, and whose tempers have acquired a tincture of sternness from experience, should be impatient at the ever-obtruded laudations of the British and Foreign Bible Society, as having effected the union of all true Christians, and ushered in the dawn of a Millennial age. It bas done nothing of the kind. Whoever knows any thing of the history of the country, knows that there have been periods, when political and religious parties ran much less high than they have done, not only for some time before, but since the institution of the British and Foreigo Bible Society ; periods at which, with far less of the cant of candour, there prevailed far more of the genuine spirit of mutual tolerance. It was not so unusual a thing, fifty years ago, for episcopal and dissenting ministers to be associated together in plans of benevolence, or in habits of intimacy, and it must be remembered that there were dissenting teachers in that day, who numbered bishops among their friendly correspondents. It is doing injustice to our national character, to exalt the Bible Society era, so much at its expense. The representation contained in the paragraph we have extracted from Mr. Owen's History, , is in this respect violently overcharged. Beneficial changes are, we trust, going forward in society, to which this noble Institution is adapted to be eminently subservient; but nothing is gained by investing it with the false splendours of a talisman.

What the British and Foreign Bible Society 'has in this country actually effecte, is, an extensive combination of political parties. This, it must be owned, is a magnificent achievement, because it confers on the Institution the character of a national work. Its effect on the minds of foreign nations, is, it may be imagined, considerably aided by this circumstance. A Society, among the patrons and presidents of which rank Princes of the blood, the Chief Ministers of State, a respectable proportion of the dignitaries of the Established Church, the Chancellors of both Universities, together with many of the nobility, will unavoidably be identified in other countries, in spite of the arts of the wretched faction by which it is opposed in this, with the British Nation at large. We are not insensible to the important advantages arising from the almost universal patronage which the Society has gained from men of every rank and every party; we feel that something is gained by the very reiteration of the act of amicable association. The Bible Society does not afford the only occasion on which men of opposite political sentiments are seen coalescing for the sake of a common object; but the peculiar nature of the object to which this Society exclusively relates, renders it the noblest occasion on which men can unite, since it is as religious beings, and in the recognition of the supreme jinportance of religious interests, that they then coalesce. In ibis view it was striking and gratifying to witness Lord Castlereagh and Mr. Whitbread honourably co-operating in the formation of the Westminster Auxiliary Society : the sentiments expressed by the latter on that occasion, were worthy of his distinguished good sense and correct feeling. • If you were to desire,' said Mr. Whitbread,

any evidence whether a blessing attends upon these Institutions, I would produce to you this fact, that we who here assemble, and those who assemble in other places, to promote the same work, do, as it were, drop our worldly selves, do rise above ourselves, to aspire to that immortality which the word of God doth preach and promise ; for all the meetings which I have attended, " (and they have been more than one or two,) upon occasions like the present, and all the meetings of which

I have read, have exhibited, (as I am sure this will exhibit,) a scene of perfect and blessed unanimity, without dissention or difference of opinion.' Vol. II. p. 336.

An honest enthusiasm might naturally take its rise from such an incident, under all the circumstances which gave it an impressive interest; but that enthusiasm must sadly have imposed upon the judgement, if in the mere concurrence of the leaders of two rival political parties, who were yet professed members of the same Protestant establishment, any proof can be discerned of the surrender of religious prejudices, as characterizing the temper of the times. In truth, there is scarcely room in this Protestant country, for the exercise of what deserves to be styled religious tolerance or candour. It is not by theological, but by circumstantial and political distinctions, that we are for the most part divided. What is implied in those hostile terms, Churchman and Dissenter? Is it a difference of theological sentiment, such as parts the maintainers of opposite creeds ; the Romanist, for instance, from the Protestant? No: they denote only a difference of ecclesiastical polity connected with a difference of political predicament. Surely, the Bible Society, in bringing together the rival sects of Protestantism, has achieved nothing worth celebrating as a triumph, if it bas merely suspended the operation of prejudices arising from this source, so as to allow of their entering into a social union for the promotion of a general object, when even Roman Catholics, Socinians, and Jews, are found capable of uniting in the same national confederacy. For our own parts, as Protestant Dissenters, we esteem it a very doubtful compliment to be, we were going say, rallied upon our candour, and charity, and peaceable dispositions, in associating with Episcopal Protestants on such occasions, and in observing towards them all the civil deference which is due to rank and station. We have often been disposed to regard the enthusiastic allusions which have been made to this circumstance, as conveying a sort of goodhumoured satire. If our Church of England friends feel that their conduct in coalescing with Christians of other sects, involves any sacrifice, any peril, aby moral conquest over tbemselves, or any thing that requires vindication in the sight of others, we cannot be surprised that they should appear to attach peculiar importance to this feature in the lostitution, and advert to it continually in the tone of cautious explanation, or of more decided complacency. But the Dissenters are not conscious of having any similar occasions for the exercise of these feelings : they risk nothing, compromise nothing, gain nothing by this amicable coalition ; and they consider themselves therefore neither as conferring por as receiving a favour, but simply as performing a duty iş strict accordance with their prin


[ocr errors]
« AnteriorContinuar »