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WHAT THE MORAL EFFECT OF CHRISTIANITY HAS
REALLY BEEN, AND WHAT WAS, IN THIS RESPECT, TO BE EXPECTED FROM IT.
I. It is absurd to expect that any species of religion, however admirable and efficacious in its moral tendency, can completely change human nature, and endue it with angelic excellence. Man, even in his state of innocence, was liable to error and to vicious choice, and his fall too clearly manifested this truth. Since that fatal period, his nature has been vitiated, and contracted a taint and a debility which never can be removed on this side of the grave; “ for the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary, the one to the other; so that we cannot do the things that we would ;'a i. e. we cannot exactly perform what reason, conscience, and religion dictate to be right. Christianity operates not by magical influence, or instantaneously converts the soul from error to knowledge, from infirmity to vi
a Gal. v. 17.
gour, from vice to virtue. All great changes in the moral as well as in the physical world must be progressive, and the more gradual and easy the steps of the process are, the more durable will be the improvement attained. In our present state some portion of error and vice will still remain. The best men are not, and never will be, exempt from blemishes. Such is the weakness of our rational faculties,—such the strength of our passions,—such the influence of example, such the power of habit,—that great pains, labour, and discipline are necessary, before tolerable order and harmony can be introduced into the soul. Whoever has any acquaintance with human nature, or any experience of life, or has attended to what passes in his own breast, will most readily assent to the dictates of holy scripture, representing internal reformation and improvement as a struggle, a fight, a new birth, the result of pangs, and throes, and excruciating endurance. I speak not of that description of integrity which entitles a person to hold his place as an ordinary member of society, or to exempt him from general censure, but, of that moral progress, that daily improvement in virtuous qualities which approaches nearer and nearer to the standard of moral excellence erected in our hearts, if we only attend to their dictates, and much more, to that which is placed before us in the word of God. The difficulty of this work
will be acknowledged by every reflecting mind, and the glory of its accomplishment, while it sheds its celestial lustre on the character which exhibits it, will be gratefully referred to divine energy most graciously bestowed. But, as the human race advances by slow and gradual steps from ferocity and barbarism to all the comforts, securities, and refinements of civilized life ; so, when vice has struck deep root, and widely spread its rank branches, these are lopped with great difficulty; with greater still is the noxious trunk extirpated; and, with the greatest, are planted in its place, the love, the assiduous cultivation, and the uniform practice of virtue. Men, whose hearts are not yet corrupted by bad example, find it no easy task to advance in the arduous path of integrity and honour. But how much is the labour increased, when evil habits are first to be surmounted and subdued, and a new direction is to be given to all the dispositions and af fections of the heart! Even when every attainment has been made which our present dark and imperfect state will admit, many traces of our primitive corruption will remain,a till death shall purge it away, and introduce the soul to consummate perfection and felicity.
a Pauca tamen suberunt priscæ vestigia fraudis.
Virg. Pollio, v. 31. Yet of old fraud some footsteps shall remain,
Although, as I have already stated in the introduction to this work, the general morals of the early Christians admirably corresponded to their profession; and this exhibits an instance of the moral efficacy of the Christian faith, the more striking, on account of the transition from idolatry on the part of the Gentile converts, and, on the part of the Jewish, from the ceremonial and pompous ritual of the Mosaical law ; yet, in describing the practice of the primitive church, no small degree of exaggeration has occasionally been employed. Lactantius, while he justly commends the purity of Christians, evidently amplifies his eulogy beyond historical correctness. Tertullian also, there is reason to believe, has asserted more on this subject than he could, by facts, justify in all its extent; and he finds an easy salvo by saying, that, if any criminal was found among Christians, he ceased to be a Christian. This is only asserting that the conduct of such persons contradicted their profession, and the same assertion may be justly made at this day. But the question is, why had not their profession more influence on their conduct ? Pliny's celebrated letter to Trajan," while it exhibits astonishing displays of fortitude and constancy in principle among the followers of Jesus, even in the feebler sex, and is the more va
a Lact. Div. Instit. lib. iii. cap. xx. c Plin. Epist. lib. x. 97.
b Tertul. Apolog. cap. xl.
luable that it is the testimony of a heathen persecutor, proves, nevertheless, that at that early period some Christians had, under the influence of terror, abjured their religion, blasphemed Christ, and offered religious worship to the Emperor's image, and to the heathen deities. It is certain, from the epistles of Paul himself, that, even in the churches which he had planted, very gross corruption of morals disgraced some of their members. In the third and fourth centuries, a dismal degeneracy infected and polluted the Christian name. On this account, many of the fathers pour out the most bitter complaints. But nothing can be more striking than the following words of Cyprian. “ Every one was intent on augmenting his patrimony, and believers, forgetting what was formerly practised under the apostles, and they were always bound to do, applied with insatiable desire to worldly acquisitions. In the priesthood, there was no devotion; no true faith in the ministry; no mercy in their actions; no discipline in their morals. Cunning fraud was employed to deceive simple hearts, and insidious arts to circumvent their brethren. Not only were they guilty of rash swearing, but even of perjury. Many bishops, who ought to be both an encouragement and an example to others, despising the care of religious concerns, became agents in secular affairs, and, abandoning the pulpit, de