Historic Memorials of the First Presbyterian Church Belfast

CHAPTER III

HOW THE DOCTRINES WE HOLD HAVE GROWN OUT OF THE PRINCIPLES WHICH HOLD US. The "Six Propositions," or Charter of Nonsubscription; preamble of Nonsubscribing Association. Essence of the Nonsubscribing position. New lights from England -- Scotland -- America. Doctrinal development: Calvinism -- Arminianism -- Arianism -- modern Unitarianism. The Divine Character -- Holy Scripture -- authority of Jesus Christ -- meaning of Salvation -- the Life beyond this. Prospects of our doctrinal views.

NEVER, in all probability, was there a more disgraceful prosecution, for a matter of Christian opinion, than that which was inflicted upon Thomas Emlyn (1663-1741).

The indictment was for a "blasphemous libel"; and these were the words specially incriminated as blasphemy: "I see no reason," Emlyn had written, "there will be to oppose those Unitarians who think him (Jesus Christ) to be a sufficient Saviour and Prince, tho he be not the only supreme God; nor can any, with reason, attempt to prove him to be such, from his works and office as king of his church, since 'tis implied, that as such he must do homage to God the Father, in delivering up his kingdom to him. And this very expression, to God the Father, makes it plain, that there is no God the Son in the same sense, or in the same supreme essence with the Father. . . . So then, Jesus Christ, in his highest capacity, being inferior to the Father, how can he be the same God, to which he is subject, or of the same rank and dignity. . . . So that . . . I may . . . safely say thus much, that the blessed Jesus has declared himself not to be the supreme God, or equal to the Father, as plainly as words could speak, or in brief express." This was the blasphemy.

Emlyn was a Unitarian: the first and the last minister in Ireland who distinctly avowed himself to be such, until within living memory. His expression of Unitarianism was studiously temperate and moderate, as may be judged from the specimens just given; the only ones produced as the foundation of the odious and atrocious charge of blasphemy. But on the strength of these words, after a most iniquitous mockery of a trial, the Chief Justice of Ireland (Richard Pyne), having two Archbishops sitting beside him on the bench, and four or five others present in court, sentenced (16th June, 1703) a Presbyterian minister to be led round the Four Courts, with a paper of accusation on his breast; to be incarcerated for a year, certain; then to pay 1,000, and continue to be in prison till the money was handed in; lastly, to find security for good behaviour during life. Nice men those bishops were, nor even content with overawing the jury by their presence. One of them, and he the Primate of all Ireland, had a statutory claim, it seems, as Queen's Almoner, to a shilling in the pound, on the line. After two years' imprisonment, Emlyn was allowed by the Lord Lieutenant (James, second Duke of Ormond) to go free, on payment of 70, instead of 1,000. But this did not suit His Grace my Lord Archbishop Narcissus Marsh of Armagh. "Give me my full poundage," said that Most Reverend man; and he got it, too, in hard cash, before the Presbyterian heretic was permitted to avail himself of the more Christian mercies of the State.

So conspicuous a display of theological ferocity excited throughout Ireland, and extended to England, a tumult of various feeling. What the unprejudiced thought about it, may be learned from a caustic review of the case, published by Sir Richard Steele, but in reality written by the great Whig Bishop, Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761). "To bring down the Father to a level with his own Son, is a commendable work, and the applauded labour of many learned men of leisure; but to place the Son below his own Father in any degree of real perfection, this is an unpardonable error; so unpardonable, that all hands were united against that unhappy man; and he found at length that he had much better have violated all God's commandments, than have interpreted some passages of Scripture differently from his brethren. The Nonconformists accused him, the Conformists condemned him, the secular power was called in, and the cause ended in an imprisonment and a very great fine; two methods of conviction about which the Gospel is silent."

In Ulster, the effect of the trial of Emlyn was distinctly felt in two opposite directions. The moderate were saddened, and set a thinking; those who stood upon the old paths were alarmed amid their rejoicing. Before the trial, the General Synod, in an address to Queen Anne, had taken credit to the Presbyterians for having cast off Emlyn, and forbidden him to preach. While he yet languished in prison, they took no steps for his release. But when the news came that Ormond had ordered the reduction of the fine, and that the dreadful heretic might shortly be expected at large, then the General Synod evidently thought that the time had arrived for precautionary action. Accordingly they enacted (5th June, 1705) that all candidates for licence and ordination should subscribe the Westminster Confession. Observe, that they did not venture to impose the test upon those already in orders.

The resolution of Synod was unanimously carried. Having concurred in passing it, some of the wiser heads appear to have bethought them of a duty even more pressing and imperative than that of securing an enforced allegiance to the doctrines which Emlyn had impugned; namely, of enquiring at the fountain-head into the teachings of the Christian oracles themselves, on the momentous topics which had begun to agitate the public mind. Thus, in the same year in which the Westminster Confession became the authoritative document of the Irish Presbyterian Church, the ministerial club, known as the Belfast Society, was formed.

This was a society of ministers from various Presbyteries, men of open mind, of great intelligence, and of competent learning, who began to meet periodically, for a free and prayerful examination into the contents of the Scriptures in their original tongues. Needless to say what this always leads to, when men are not bound beforehand by the fetters of a system. It led, in the case of these candid and scholarly divines, to the determination that, for their parts, they would never set their hands, in slavish subscription, either to the Westminster system of doctrine, or to any other product of human wisdom.

Haliday's gallant refusal (when called to the ministry of this Church, at the beginning of 1720) to renew, in any way, his subscription, brought matters to a crisis. Haliday's appearance as a recruit in the ranks of the liberal party was a fact of the first importance. He had been a member of the Belfast Society, and, though of Irish birth, had never yet been settled in Ireland. But he had done good service in London, on behalf of the liberties of Irish Presbyterians, and had earned the grateful vote of the Synod, in reward of his exertions. In London, also, he had learned the principle of Nonsubscription, during the debates at Salter's Hall, in 1719, when "the Bible carried it by four." On his refusal to subscribe, the Synod was in a fix. An accusation of Arianism and anti-Presbyterianism raised against Haliday had utterly broken down. What was called a Pacific Act had been passed, in June, 1720. Its name was as delusive as that of the Pacific Ocean, The Pacific Act provided that in future "all intrants into the ministry," even if already ordained out of Ireland, must subscribe the Westminster Confession; but that if they should scruple "any phrase or phrases," they might substitute for such phrases their own expressions, and the Presbyteries were to judge whether such substituted expressions were sound or not. 'But,' said Haliday, when called upon to subscribe, on 28th July, 'I scruple at every phrase; not that I disbelive the truths which the Confession contains; but I say. "Scripture is a sufficient test of orthodoxy, and the only legitimate test."' The Belfast Presbytery installed Haliday on this footing. The Synod, appealed to in the following year (1721), decided at length to let the matter drop; but, to ease their consciences, a large proportion of the members availed themselves of a permission to attach their signatures voluntarily to the Confession, as a public sign of adhesion to it. Those who did not do this were henceforth called Nonsubscribers.

Among these Nonsubscribers was Thomas Nevin (d. 1744), of Downpatrick. The talk ran one day, in Captain Hannyngton's parlour at Moneyrea, on the subject of blasphemy; a crime which, according to the Confession, the magistrate is bound to punish. Nevin, who was present, called attention to the case of the Jews, who, he said, could not be fairly condemned for blasphemy, though they conscientiously denied Christ to be God. 'What,' said Hannyngton, 'is it no blasphemy to call Christ a creature?' 'How can it be,' retorted Nevin, 'when we all own Christ to be man as well as God?' Gossip new from mouth to mouth, asseverating that Nevin had nakedly avowed "it is no blasphemy to say Christ is not God." The inference was obvious; Emlyn, that blaspheming Unitarian, must have a warm sympathiser at Downpatrick. Nevin was arraigned before the Synod (1724). Ten days were spent, without success, in endeavouring to bring him to book. At length a resolution was carried, requiring him, in obedience to the Synod, then and there, to make a declaration of his belief in the supreme Deity of Christ. Nevin very properly declined to obey this peremptory mandate. He said it was the duty of his accusers to prove their charge; and the Synod had no right to take this way of disposing of it. He would make no declaration; but he bade them observe that his refusal proceeded from no disbelief of the doctrine. The Synod at once declined all further ministerial communion with him, and decided to proceed no further with the trial. Evidently the temper of the body was huffed. The spirit of angry disputation was roused. Nonsubscribers could expect no quarter.

Haliday, to prove the reasonableness of their objections, published an attack on the theological language of the Confession, in a "Letter" (1725) to Gilbert Kennedy, of Tullylish. The point he selects is one which will strike a modern reader as rather a small one. It is the phrase in which the Confession speaks of the two natures of Christ as joined "without composition." The notable thing, however, is that Haliday takes exception to the Confession, not on the ground that it excludes or condemns heresy, but because it opens the door for theological inaccuracy.

Let this distinction be observed very closely. The whole religious meaning and drift of Nonsubscription will be missed, unless there be a firm grasp and full mastery of this strong position, which it took at the outset. Nonsubscription does not mean, and never did mean, a pica for mere liberty; it rests on a plea for truth, for honest and conscientious exactitude in the momentous matters of Christian doctrine. NonsubscrIbers rejected the clauses of the Confession as fetters; but how did they experience them to be shackles? Not because they had embarked in a quixotic pursuit of religion without definite opinions; but because, comparing the creed with the New Testament, and studying carefully among themselves the language of Christ and his Apostles, they had discovered that, though in the main the doctrines of the Confession were such as their education and training had taught them to approve, yet they could not conscientiously say that all its particular statements were true in fact. Truth was the watchword of these men. They found that the simple truth of Jesus Christ was one thing; the Westminster Confession, however admirable from some points of view, was another thing. Hence they said: 'We will be judged by the truth of Christ; we will not be judged by the Confession. Examine us, as much as you will, by the standard of the Master's own teaching; the Westminster Confession was not spoken on the Mount; the Westminster Confession has no claim to be an arbitrary rule of faith.'

This was the gist of the famous Six Propositions, offered as an Expedient for Peace, to the General Synod of 1726, and erected into the very Magna Charta of Nonsubscription, when, in that memorable year, the main body of the Presbyterians of Ulster drove from their midst the principles and the persons of their Nonsubscribing brethren. Beneath some antique verbiage, the meaning they embody is full of fresh and wholesome life, needed, and soon to be demanded, by the Ulster of to-day. The General Assembly, though it has rejoiced the shade of Jubal by its debates tending to show the need of a little liberty to such as handle the organ, would reject the Six Propositions to-day, as its ancestors rejected them more than a century and a-half ago. But when the gathering of the clans of Presbyterianism, from all parts of the world, took place in Belfast recently (1884), a body (the Cumberland Presbyterian Church of America) was admitted into the Presbyterian Alliance, which had formally superseded the Westminster Confession, in accordance with the demands of a fuller experience of God's truth. Nor will this question be finally settled, until the principles of Nonsubscription have received, in the light of the nineteenth century, a consideration which was denied to them in the twilight of the eighteenth.

The first of the Six Propositions contains the pith of the whole. It is, that Christ himself has sufficiently laid down the terms of communion and conditions of office in his Church; and that no body of men has a right to add to what is "settled in the Gospel." This means, in short, that our Lord, when he planted his religion among men, knew his own business, and asks no assistance from a conclave of Commonwealth divines, in laying the foundations of his Church. Accordingly, the second Proposition maintains that, without recourse to subscription, it is easy to ascertain whether persons have, or have not, the faith of Christ. The third and fourth affirm that, to impose subscription on ministers, or on "parents, as the condition of the baptism of their children," is to go beyond the precept and the warrant of Christ. The fifth and sixth deal with recent cases of soreness: the one condemns the exaction of a declaration of faith from a person who could not be fairly convicted of false doctrine on evidence (referring to Nevin's excommunication); the other very properly declares (with a reference to the action of the Synod after excusing Haliday) that to call that a voluntary subscription into which men were urged through fear of "a popular odium," was to shelter an act of injustice under an abuse of language.

The substance of this historic manifesto is here given, partly in more modern words, partly in its original terms. Even at the risk of some tedium, it is desirable that its standpoint should be fully understood; for it is the very ground on which we have rested secure and strong, from the days of Haliday until now. Precisely the same, in its force and bearing, is the preamble of the representative Association of Irish Nonsubscribing Presbyterians, founded in 1835. "Allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, as the only King and Head of the Church," and "the maintenance of the great principles of the Reformation, viz., the sufficiency of the Scripture, the right of Private Judgment, and the rejection of human authority in matters of faith," these are the solid planks of our Nonsubscribing platform.

Our Nonsubscribing fathers were, in one sense, as orthodox as our neighbours of the General Assembly. In another sense they were as unorthodox as ourselves. If orthodoxy means the holding of Trinitarian opinions, then they were genuinely orthodox. But if orthodoxy means that questions of theology were settled, once and for ever, by a committee of experts, sitting in the Jerusalem Chamber, to do what Christ left undone, then they would have repudiated the notion of orthodoxy, root and branch. And unfortunately this is what orthodoxy is commonly taken to imply, when the word is used by Presbyterians. It ought to mean upright opinion; well formed, intelligible, honest opinion; just as orthography means well formed, intelligible, honest writing, not the cramped and clerkly hand of ages past. But it has come to mean sixteenth century opinion in the Episcopal Church, and has not yet got beyond seventeenth century opinion in the majority of the Presbyterian Churches. Our forefathers said: 'We belong to the eighteenth century; and we have just as good a right as any people had, seventy or eighty years before us, to learn the meaning of the New Testament for ourselves.' This was horribly unorthodox; even though, with their previous training and associations, they actually aimed at conclusions very little different from those of their contemporaries. And when we, their children, say: "We also have a right, nay it is our Christian duty, to learn, in like manner, for ourselves, what is the truth of Christ: we are following their example and their instructions. To Christ they led us, to Christ this day we go, resolved, with our own living hearts and open minds, to reach a present and personal interpretation of the message of our Divine Master, even as did those heroes of conscience and of hope, who reared by their sacrifices a shrine of God, devout and free, where, through coming ages, men might enter into the salvation of Christ, live the life of purity and charity, and worship the Father in spirit and in truth.

No sudden leap of doctrinal aberration transferred our theology from the Calvinistic restraints of Scotland or of Westminster to the Unitarian discipleship in which we now rejoice. The steps were deliberate, slow, and sure. Our body, though strangers coming among us often mistake its temper, is essentially conservative in its instincts; cautious in its movements; changing, not for change's sake, but under pressure of recognised truth; ready, nay eager, to accord an unprejudiced hearing to what any honest mind may offer, but quite unwilling to part with any principle which time and experience have approved as sound, for any novelty of the passing hour. Influences from other countries aided the gradual development of our doctrinal changes. England, whose discarded Confession our divines had adopted, now furnished us with literature that counteracted the effect of the Westminster theology. From the Establishment came, very early in the century, Dr. Samuel Clarke's famous book on the Trinity (1712), the fountain-head of the so-called Arian views; a book, the influence of which, after forty-four years, led Bishop R Clayton, of Clogher, to move in the Irish House of Lords (1756), that the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds be expunged from the Prayer Book. From the Dissenters came, near the middle of the century, Dr. John Taylor's book on Original Sin (1740), which, more perhaps than any other work, contributed to the liberalising of the theological intelligence of the age; it was reprinted in Belfast in 1746, and the list of subscribers, and catalogue of theological works sold by the publishers, should be carefully studied by all who are interested in the mental history of the Province. Scotland continued to educate our Irish Presbyterian clergy in liberal ideas, as has already been remarked and illustrated in our first chapter. Scotland, that had given us the stalwart, fervid Calvinism of Patrick Adair, gave us also the calm, enlightened wisdom of James Crombie. Lastly, America sent us across the sea the quickening word of the most exquisite of writers and most elevating of reformers, the pure and sweet genius of William Ellery Channing. We had, indeed, some right to avail ourselves of the light of Channing's lamp, for throughout his ministerial life it burned in a house of worship founded by John Morehead of Newtownards, and long known as the "Irish Church"; and we may add that, though native hands had prepared the soil, the first seed of the spreading tree of American Unitarianism was sown in 1783, by William Hazlitt, of Shrone hill, Tipperary.

The first great stride in our development was that which drew us from Calvinism, the Gospel of the love of God for the elect, to Arminianism, the Gospel of the love of God for the world. Many of the original Nonsubscribers ultimately took this step; few, or probably none, got any further. The next decisive move was that which conducted us from Trinitarianism with its mysteriously three-fold God, to Arianism with its dear presentation of the Eternal Father, whole attributes are visibly mirrored in the spotless brightness of His only Son. SIlently this move was made. We cannot say precisely when, or by whom, the transition to the Arian view was first accomplished. For, in spite of the largeness or the Toleration Act, the statute book still (and up to so recently as 1817) laid pains and penalties upon all who should speak or write against the received doctrine of the Trinity; and the fate of Emlyn warned men that open speech might be a dangerous experiment. The change, accordingly, was effected in comparative silence but it was a silence that might be felt. Trinitarianism is, for the most part, an excrescence upon Christianity; the excrescence was quietly laid aside, without direct attack or public proclamation. Trinitarian ideas and expressions, borrowed from the Creeds, were calmly dropped; the language of the New Testament was reinstated in their place. This we may safely say, that since the appointment of Thomas Drennan (1736), the doctrine of the Trinity has never been preached or owned by any minister of this Church.

Now these two great changes, from Calvinism to Arminianism, and from the Trinitarian to the Arian position, really, and in substance, involve all the rest. That God loves man, not merely some men; that Christ is the Son, not the identical Self, of God; these axioms comprise the whole story of our theological advance. Whatever else there may be to tell, is included within the full meaning of the two propositions. Modern Unitarianism is their outcome.

The Unitarian name was introduced to the North of Ireland in a publication which has escaped the notice or our historians, a Gospel Defence of the Unitarian Doctrine, printed in Belfast, in 1774. Its unknown author, who took the name or Epaphras, was a layman in sympathy with the views of Priestley. The opinions of that great writer never made much way in this part of the world, and it is probable that Epaphras' publication found few readers. Certainly it did not succeed, either in recommending the particular standpoint of Priestley, or in naturalising among us the Unitarian name. So long as that name was identified with Humanitarianism, it was rejected (and this is not surprising) by the Arians of Ulster. In 1821, the managers or the Unitarian Fund in London, who had long meditated a movement in Ireland despatched a missionary to Ulster. John Smethurst (1793-1859). He was an amiable and a scholarly man, but his mission was a dead failure; one may even say, deservedly so. For its object was, not so much to win new ground for Unitarianism, as to convert the Ulster Arians into Humanitarians of the then prevalent English type. The Ulster Arians thought themselves fully competent to manage their own theological affairs, and very generally turned the cold shoulder upon John Smethurst. He was not allowed to preach in any Meeting-house in Belfast, but he lectured in the Lancasterian Schoolroom.

But though this mission fell signally flat, it was productive, both directly and indirectly, of very important results. It summoned forth, for the first time, the tremendous theological energies of Henry Cooke, who went from place to place after Smethurst, literally annihilating his chances of influence, and who, from that time forward, embarked on his life-long career of animosity to Unitarianism in every shape and form. It brought out, also, the great Dr. Bruce as a controversial theologian, not in defence of Smethurst, but in opposition to his tenets, from another point of view. Dr. Bruce was the first minister in the North of Ireland who took the Unitarian name; and he was encouraged to do so by the new currency which had been given to it by the Baltimore Sermon (1819) of Dr. Channing, which electrified America, and taught the world that there was a broader, a more comprehensive, and a more spiritual type of Unitarianism in being than that presented for the moment by the insular English school.

Dr. Bruce's theology is on lines coincident with those which formed the doctrinal aspect of Channing's mind, with more of systematic nicety, based on a much closer and more connected study of scripture; at the same time, with far Iess ardour of spiritual appeal. The weak places in Dr. Bruce's armour were searched out with keen acumen by Dr. John Paul, in his Refutation of Arianism (1825). But neither this powerful criticism, nor the mass of subsequent publications, has rendered Dr. Bruce's Sermons on the study of the Bible, and of the Doctrines of Christianity (1824, improved edition, 1826) out of date, though, of course, there are points on which sixty year's have tended to revise our conclusions. Less suasive, perhaps, than the sermons of John Mitchel of Newry, on The Scripture Doctrine of the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, which appeared four years later (1828, second edition, 1830), they are strong, manly, ably argued, and admirably written; right worthy of their historic place, as constituting the first elucidation of Unitarian Christianity committed to the press by any Ulster Presbyterian clergyman.

Following the same lines, is the better known and more accessible defence of Unitarianism by John Scott Porter, in the discussion with Dean Bagot, in 1834. This controversy is unique among expositions of Unitarianism, in that it inseparably joins together both sides of the argument, so that no one can procure the work of the Trinitarian advocate, without procuring also the work of his Unitarian opponent, or consult the argument for the Divine Unipersonality, without having the counter-argument before his eyes. To studious and candid minds, to whichever side disposed, this is a great gain. Our more recent literature is now pretty abundant in statements and defences of Our faith; and for facilitating its circulation, we have two voluntary institutions, the Unitarian Society (1832) and the Ulster Unitarian Christian Association (1875), maintained respectively by those who take opposite views of some modern controversies.

Unitarianism, which takes its name from its vindication of the doctrine of the One God in One Person, is even more conclusively distinguished by its view of the Divine Character than by its account of the Divine Personality. That God is One, we receive as the central truth of the Old Testament; that God is Love, we take to be the essence of the New Testament. It is this persuasion which has practically reconstructed the whole scheme and spirit of our theology; making it impossible for us to believe the Almighty Father a Being implacable towards any who truly repent and turn to Him; and causing us to see in the mission and the work of Christ, not the antithesis to the sterner mind of God, not the deprecation of the Creator's wrath, not the arbitrary satisfaction of an otherwise inexorable severity in the Most High, but the manifestation and the fulfillment of the Father's love.

The same principle has guided us in our estimation of the place, purpose, and meaning of the Holy Scriptures of our faith, which we read In the constant light of the Fatherhood and loving kindness of God, perusing and interpreting them as divinely adapted for the gradual unfolding of His spiritual truth to the mind. of men in successive ages, till at length the full blaze of the sun of heavenly knowledge shone in the revelation of Jesus Christ. We do not go to the Scriptures to teach us the lower sciences, which God has given us faculties to acquire in other ways. We do not open the volumes of revelation as though they were text-books of history, of chronology, of physics, of astronomy. We search them for richer results; we approach, and revere them as the great treasury of the records of God's dealing with the human soul. We experience in them the touch of the Spirit of God; we feel the inspiration which they communicate to mind and heart, to confidence and character; and therefore we say that they are inspired, because we know that they inspire.

Even above the New Testament we place him whose picture there is faithfully and sublimely drawn, and whose authority we hold ourselves, as Christians, bound at all hazards to abide by and to maintain. Though we do not deify him, we cannot separate Christ from God. His image is the one perfect likeness of the Divine Love; it is through him -- and this not by help merely of the words which he spake, nor only through the awe of his wonderful deeds, but through his overcoming presentation of a perfect goodness, a holiness unflawed, and yet in living sympathy with men -- it is through him that we understand the very heart of God, and have access to the Father. Therefore Christ is the highest authority in religion that we can approach or imagine; the one true way to God, because the one true expression of the life of God, sent from the bosom of the Father to be the light of men below.

We mean by Salvation a deliverance from something more than punishment, with its apprehensions and terrors; namely, from that which is its justification and its cause, the evil and misery of sin, The Christian religion makes men safe by making them honest, true upright, and good. It effects its appointed end by bringing into sinful man a new spirit from above, a spirit which regenerates his heart, refines his temper, purifies his dispositions, regulates his conduct, subdues his passions, and reforms his life. The salutary office of Christ is accomplished in the human soul; where at length he reigns as conqueror, not by pacifying God, but by gaining supremacy over the rebellious will, as the fruit of his love, his labours, and his sacrifice.

To the Life beyond this we look forward with hope, because there is that within us which says "We shall not die;" with faith, because God is good; with certainty, because Christ our Lord lives, and we shall also live. In the eternal world, we believe there shall be for every sinner, and for every sin, "tribulation and anguish," according to the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds. Yet we believe not that sin can, in the realm of God, maintain against His love and power an everlasting abode in any heart. We look forward to the fulfillment of the promise that "there shall be no curse any more" (Rev, xxii, 3), but God at length be "all in all."

If the enquiry arise as to the prospects of the spread and acceptance of the views of Christian Doctrine outlined in the preceding sentences, the reply is, that already the vital substance of these views, welcomed or dreaded, acknowledged or disowned, dominates the thinking mind of the Christian word. The Unitarian name is Shunned; the Unitarian spirit has proved too powerful for its opponents. It has invaded their own strongholds, it dictates the tone of their most popular sermons, it presides over the developments of their Biblical criticism, its gladdening light shines with emancipating ray into the heart and intelligence of the young; the ominous shadow of its growing power falls heavily upon the breast of the anxious maintainer of old traditions. It is not within the walls of Unitarian Meeting-houses alone that our essential principles find voices and acceptance. Pass by our doors with averted eye, and the library, the newspaper, the countless influences daily operating, which go to form the temper of the modern mind, will insensibly impel you in our direction. Send the text and the translation of the New Testament to the most trusted of scholars for revision, the Unitarians are the only theologians who are gainers by the results. Let history, science, scholarship, philosophy, conduct you to the most certain issues of their advancing knowledge, and there is a Unitarian argument in every position thus wrested from the ignorance of the past. The reception won by our actual teachings is considerable; the permanence of our principles is even more signally apparent. Our way of looking at Scripture, our Sense of the brotherhood or man, our proclamation of the Redeemer's humanity, our confidence in Almighty love; all these have told, are telling, and will yet tell, upon the religious mind of the age. If the victory is not with us, at any rate the victory is ours.

And still the Unitarian name is shunned. Perhaps this is not altogether wonderful. Indeed it is something to our credit that it is so. For, in an age of pious inconsistencies and halting betwixt the old and the new, all age of see-saw and zig-zag, we are an uncompromising people. We must have the naked truth, and nothing less divine will satisfy us. We have passed the stage of half measures, of religious reticence, of endeavouring to fill old bottles with new wine, or to patch fresh cloth on tattered vestures of decay. All this is matter of history with us; we have done with it. The period of temporary expedients is over in our case. Our forerunners felt their way through it; our grandfathers came clean out or it. Amid the wild experiments and alarmed reactions and hesitating liberalisms of our day, we stand secure in the possession of tried and verified truth.

We need not expect an immediate recognition. In whose footsteps do we follow? "A disciple is not above his Master, nor a servant above His Lord." Children of a rejected Christ, what more dare we ask, than to have present fellowship with him who saw of the travail of his soul, and was satisfied? But we have an unfailing promise: "Because thou didst keep the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of trial, that hour which is to come upon the whole world, to try them that dwell upon the whole world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. I come quickly: hold fast that which thou hast, that no one take thy crown" (Rev. iii. 10, 11).


DATES. -- Emlyn's Trial, 1703. Clarke's "Scripture Doctrine of the Holy Trinity," 1712. Nevin's Trial, 1724. Halliday's Letter to Kennedy, 1725. "Six Propositions" published, 1726. Professor Simson, of Glasgow, suspended, 1728. Taylor's "Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin," 1740. Bishop Clayton's "Essay on Spirit," 1751; motion in Irish House of Lords to expunge Athanasian and Nicene Creeds from the Prayer-book, 1756. "Gospel Defence of Unitarian Doctrine," 1774. Trinity Act, 1817. Channing's Baltimore Sermon, 1819. Smethurst's Mission, 1821. Dr. Bruce's doctrinal Sermons, 1824. Unitarian Society, 1831. Porter and Bagot Discussion, 1834. Ulster Unitarian Christian Association, 1875.

 

^ top of page