Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

the other, asserting and exercising the right of free, unrestricted, individual inquiry, having no creed but the Bible, interpreted according to the best light which each individual could obtain for himself, and proceeding on this course under all the varying conditions arising from diversities of original character, acquired knowledge, outward circumstances and connexions, have been led, as might have been expected, into very various conclusions. Many of them, alarmed perhaps at the apparent progress of change which they witnessed around them, and doubting in themselves whereunto these things might grow, drew back, and ultimately passed over to the body which claimed the character of orthodoxy. Wherever this class formed the majority in numbers or influence, of course they gave their own character to the congregation, retaining its chapel and endowIn other cases, they quietly seceded, and either joined other congregations previously existing, or formed new ones of their own. But there is not the slightest trace in the history of those times, of any disposition to appeal to the Court of Chancery for the purpose of expelling their "heretical" brethren by process of law, merely because they had exercised the liberty of Protestants and Dissenters, in inquiring and judging for themselves; and this too, notwithstanding that there were at that early period many of the original founders still living, who could have given testimony, if required, as to their own views and intentions in contributing to the first formation of the society. Others again, and among these not a few of the highest in rank, station and opulence, as might be expected, were speedily absorbed by the Establishment; while a large portion persevered in the course on which their fathers had entered, and now for nearly a century, or in some places for a still longer period, have openly professed some form of Unitari

anism.

Thus it has happened, that the occupants of the chapels originally built by Presbyterians, (so called,) at or near the commencement of the last century, now constitute the

not Presbyterians, but not orthodox. At the present day, it is believed, that many of the most learned and inquisitive among the ministers have adopted a system nearly approaching to Sabellianism, while but a small portion of their hearers, probably, have any distinct notion, on the subject.

bulk of the anti-trinitarian Dissenters of this country. But we are not aware of a single instance in which this change was attended by what may be called a solution of continuity in the congregation itself. It is true, that under any circumstances a Dissenting congregation, consisting of a number of individuals or families voluntarily associating together for the purpose of religious worship, is of necessity a fluctuating body; but ours have not been more so than any others; and in almost all our older societies, the lineal descendants and representatives may still be pointed out, of those who originally founded or contributed to found them, and whose families, in every successive generation, have continued without intermission to be worshippers in the same place, till it has acquired in their estimation the venerable character of antiquity, and is intimately connected with all their most cherished recollections.

The smaller community of General Baptists have partaken to a very considerable extent of the same influences as the Presbyterians, and have in consequence passed through a similar series of changes. The distinguishing tenet of general redemption, from which their specific name is derived, placed them from the first, as to what are called orthodox doctrines, in the same relation to the more numerous body of Particular Baptists, as the Presbyterians of that day bore to the Independents. Moreover, with the single exception of their leading peculiarity of adult baptism by immersion, they agreed in repudiating the practice of subscription to articles of faith; and hence a more liberal spirit has pervaded their societies, and the same marked contrast has ever since been observable between them and their Calvinistic brethren. The greater part of this body, though by no means the whole, are now numbered in the Unitarian ranks; and the names of Foster, Bulkley, and Toulmin, among others belonging to this community, occupy a distinguished place in the honored catalogue of the most able and zealous defenders of our faith.

In both of these classes the progress of opinion, as we have already observed, was gradual; but a very considerable deviation from Trinitarian orthodoxy took place at a much earlier period than is often supposed. The movement party of those days, (if we may be allowed to borrow a favorite expression of a later period,) were arrested in

their course for a time by the credit and influence of Clarke and Whiston in the Church, and of Emlyn and Peirce among the Dissenters. Hence the profession of Arianism prevailed almost universally among the most eminent theological writers who adorned the Presbyterian churches during the former half of the eighteenth century. The appearance of Lowman's "Essay on the Shekinah," and Lardner's celebrated "Letter on the Logos," had the first tendency to draw their attention generally to other views, and to promote an acknowledgment of the simple humanity of Christ.

In Ireland, the Presbyterian system of church government and discipline has been retained along with the name, not merely by the Orthodox body called the Synod of Ulster, who are now in a great measure identified with the Established Church of Scotland, but also in some degree by the Unitarian associations which have separated from that body. The ground of separation, it should be observed, was not in the first instance so much a difference of doctrine, as a resistance to the demand of subscription to articles of faith; which, as usual, has led the separatists to the gradual abandonment of the creeds of their forefathers, and the profession of Unitarian Christianity. On this ground the Presbytery of Antrim seceded early in the last century, and a larger body, now called the Remonstrant Synod, in the year 1828. The first consists of nine, the second of twenty-six congregations, most of them very numerous. There are also five Unitarian congregations connected with the southern Presbyterian Synod of Munster. There are now, in all, forty-two Unitarian congregations in the North of Ireland; two of which, Strabane and Ballymena, have been organized since the passing of the Dissenters' Chapels Act.

An esteemed friend in Ireland, who sends us the above information, proceeds as follows:-"I am perfectly satisfied, and more especially from recent events, that the seeds for another separation from the parent body are extensively sown; and that in the course of less than a hundred years more, there will be a much greater gathering under the Unitarian standard." "We adhere," says he, "to the Presbyterian form of church government, but we have no power, derived from restrictive clauses in our trust-deeds,

or from any other source, to enforce our regulations. We merely think it is productive of more sympathy and cooperation than the Congregational system. In our Presbyteries and Synods we assume no authority over each other, but endeavor to consult respecting the welfare of the church at large." On the whole, the state of things in Ireland appears to him decidedly encouraging; notwithstanding that there, as well as in England, the influence of fashion, and other causes operating chiefly on those of higher station, have occasioned a frequent falling away to the Established Church. The number of professed Unitarians in the North of Ireland he estimates at from thirty-five to forty thousand.

Flourishing Unitarian congregations have been gathered in Edinburgh and Glasgow; and several smaller societies exist in other parts of Scotland.

As to a precise numerical report of the present condition of the denomination in England, it is not easy to furnish any that could be depended on with confidence, on account of the entire absence both of internal and external organization. There exists no public body or association which is accustomed to receive returns of this kind, still less entitled to call for them; so that any estimate which might be offered on this part of the subject must necessarily be somewhat indefinite. It is believed that the entire number of chapels in England and Wales in which any form of anti-trinitarian doctrine is professed, and where religious worship is offered in consequence exclusively to the God and Father of Jesus Christ, falls short of three hundred. Many of these however, especially in remote country situations, are at present occupied by but slender congregations; so that though in the larger towns more numerous societies may be found, it would not perhaps be safe to rate them at an average amount of more than two hundred each. This would give the entire amount of avowed Unitarians separating from the Established Church, and from other classes of Dissenters upon that ground, about sixty thousand. This however is a mere vague estimate. That the entire number of actual Unitarians in the country greatly exceeds it, cannot admit of a moment's doubt; but of course persons of this class, who either keep their opinions to themselves, or by uniting openly with Trinitarian

churches virtually represent their own religious peculiarities as of no material or practical importance, cannot be considered as forming any addition to the strength or influence of the body, or as contributing in any sensible degree to the promotion of what they admit to be correct views of religious truth. If we have counted right, there are twelve chapels in London and its dependencies, in which Unitarianism in one form or another is professed. But the main strength of the Unitarian body in numbers, and perhaps in opulence, will be found in the manufacturing districts, in South Lancashire, Cheshire, Warwickshire, and the adjacent counties. The largest congregations will probably be found, in London-at Essex street, Hackney, Portland street, and Finsbury; in the country-at Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol, Exeter, Nottingham, and Norwich.

The Presbyterian Dissenters, from the earliest period, formed a high standard of the qualifications requisite for the Christian ministry. The original founders, most of whom had received a University education, numbered among them a fair proportion of the most accomplished scholars and divines of their age; and before they were called away from the scene of their earthly labors and sufferings, they did their best to secure similar advantages to their successors, debarred, as they now were, from the privilege of resorting to the miscalled national establishments of Oxford and Cambridge. The exertions which were then made, and which have been continued with little intermission from that time to the present, to supply an adequate compensation for this unjust exclusion, would furnish a valuable additional chapter to the "Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties;" and it is not too much to say that, with the Divine blessing, they have been attended throughout with a reasonable share of success. The private and public academies which have successively undertaken to supply the demand of the English Presbyterian churches for a learned ministry, have in general been conducted by men of well deserved eminence and reputation; and not a few of their pupils have taken an honorable rank, both as theologians and in various departments of literature and of science. The names of Emlyn, Peirce, Hallet, Chandler, Benson, Taylor, Lardner, Price, Priestley, Belsham, — to

« AnteriorContinuar »