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In fact, the generality of mankind are governed by words and names; often without, and fometimes even against their knowledge. Whilft the ignorant multitude are led backward and forward, this way and that way, like a drove of cattle, by the cry to which their drivers have familiarifed them. This has been the cafe from the beginning of the world to the present day; and must be the case, so long as men continue to be what they are, more difpofed to act than to think.
But words, it is to be obferved, are but the garments of things; and fometimes loose garments, which are put off and on, according to the tafte or humour of their employer. At the fame time it should be remembered, that how often foever the dress may change, the body ftill remains the fame: in other words, there is a character of truth effential to the nature of certain fubjects, which, though by an artful disguise it may be made to serve the cause of impofture, will not remain unknown to thofe who have judgment and refolution to strip off the dress defigned to conceal it.
Nothing would be more eafy, than to prove the dreadful confequences derivable to fociety from fuch fatal deception, by an induction of those numberlefs circumstances in which a plausible word, wrested from
its proper sense, has proved the means of accomplishing whatever object the artful employer of it had in view, however destructive to the peace and welfare of mankind. But to avoid digression, it will be necefsary to confine myself to what may be considered as falling within the compass of our present subject. The only popular phrases, therefore, upon which I shall now hazard a remark, will be those of liberty of conscience, toleration, and the right of private judgment in religious matters; subjects, upon which all separatists from the church are forward in enlarging; because they, for the most part, consider them as standing upon ground which is not to be shaken.
In subjects, where truth and error border so close upon each other, that it requires nice discrimination to trace out with precision the exact line of separation between them; and in which interest and prejudice have at all times had much to do, in misleading the understanding, and corrupting the judgment; we must not be surprised to find, not only a great variety of sentiments and opinions, but also a great perplexity in the manner in which they are delivered. When, through the infirmity of human nature, men are apt to be more intent on gaining the victory over an opponent, than on investigating the cause of truth;
they will choose that field of controversy, which gives the greatest scope for manoeuvring, to prevent as much as may be, the poffibility of their being pushed as it were into a corner, from whence there might be no escape. In defending their cause, therefore, knowing that much is to be faid, which is not to be controverted; they take care to confine themselves to thofe generalities, to which their opponent cannot object; whilst their mode of attack confifts, for the moft part, in driving their adverfary into extremes, by a ftudious aggravation of his conclufions, for the purpose of establishing a ground-work for popular declamation and abuse.
By this mode of managing controversy, the exact point in which truth lies, is continually kept out of fight; for men, whofe object it is, in the handling certain fubjects, not so much to convince, as to confound, will ftudiously steer clear of those precife limits, which ought to constitute the boundary for all rational argument on the occafion. To the subjects here immediately in view the foregoing obfervations may not be deemed wholly inapplicable.
Upon the first of them, it has been imagined, that, provided men follow the direction of their own conSciences, they are juftified in whatever mode of con
duct they may adopt; which (as the term conscience is now too generally understood) is in other words to say, that because men are persuaded a thing is right, therefore it cannot be wrong. Upon this principle, it matters not what a man's profession is, provided he be sincere in it; consequently the fincere martyr for the faith, and the sincere perfecutor of it, stand upon the same footing.
But though a conduct, in opposition to the dictate of conscience, carry with it its own condemnation, (for in such a case a man pronounces sentence upon himself;) it by no means follows, that a conduct in conformity to it will, on that account, secure to itself an acquittal. For this would be to make private opi: nion the standard of right and wrong, instead of the law of God; an idea which has, on different occafions, led to an infinity of mischief.
Though the plea of conscience, therefore, confidered as the private judgment of the party upon the legality or illegality of his own conduct, might be a good one in the mouth of a heathen, who might have no surer guide to follow; yet it cannot be admitted in that of a Christian, but in proportion as it is conformable to the rule by which it will be judged But, as preparatory to our forming a correct idea upon
this fubject, it is neceffary that we know what con fcience properly is; for of the number that make use of the word, nineteen in twenty, perhaps, may be
ignorant of its true meaning.
By confcience, then, is to be understood, not that knowledge, opinion, or perfuafion, which a man may poffefs upon any given fubject; but that knowledge, opinion, or perfuafion, which is reflected inward upon his mind from fome reafon, law, or rule, from without, which is the proper standard of judgment in the case in question. Conscience, therefore, as its compound title denotes is, comparative knowledge; it is the judgment which a man paffes on his own actions compared with fome law. Remove all law, and you take away all confcience. For where there is no law, there can be no tranfgreffion; and where there is no tranfgreffion, there can be no judgment, because there is no criminal. Without a law fuperior to confcience, therefore, there can be no fuch thing as confcience at all: for confcience is a private, personal principle, which must neceffarily be submitted to fome law of GOD, real or fuppofed, as its ultimate rule.
"When we speak of confcience in our actions, (fays Archbishop SHARP) we have respect to fome law or rule, by which those actions are to be directed and