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SERMONS, principally designed to illustrate and to enforce Chris
tian Morality. By the Rev. T. GISBORNE, A. M. Svo. pp. 430.
We have read these sermons with so much satisfaction, that were it in our power to aid their circulation by any testimony of our approbation, we should be almost at a loss for terms sufficiently strong and emphatic. Though the excellent author is possessed already of a large share of the public esteem, we are persuaded these discourses will make a great accession to his celebrity. Less distinguished by any predominant quality, than by an assemblage of the chief excellencies in the pulpit composition, they turn on subjects not very commonly handled, and discuss them with a copiousness, delicacy, and force, which evince the powers of a master. They are almost entirely upon moral subjects, yet equally remote from the superficiality and dryness with which these subjects are too often treated. The morality of Mr. Gisborne is arrayed in all the majesty of truth, and all the beauties of holiness. In perusing these sermons, the reader is continually reminded of real life, and beholds human nature under its most unsophisticated aspect, without ever being tempted to suppose himself in the schools of pagan philosophy. We cannot better explain the professed scope and object of the author, than by copying a few sentences from his preface.
Of late years it has been loudly asserted that, among clergymen who have showed themselves very earnest in doctrinal points, adequate regard 'has not been evinced to moral instruction. The charge has perhaps been urged with the greatest vehemence by persons, who have employed little trouble in examining into its truth. In many cases, it has been groundless; in many, exaggerated. In some instances there has been reason, I fear, for a degree of complaint; and in more, a colorable pretext for the imputation. I believe that some preachers, shocked on beholding examples, real or supposed, of congregations starving on mere morality substituted for the bread of life; eager to lay broad and deep the foundations of the gospel ; and ultimately apprehensive lest their own hearers should suspect them of reverting towards legality ; have not given to morals, as fruits of faith, the station and the amplitude to which they have a scriptural claim. Anxious lest others should mistake, or lest they should themselves be deemed to mistake, the branch for the root : not satisfied with proclaiming to the branch, as they were bound habitually to proclaim, Thou bearest not the root, but the root thee: they have shrunk from the needful office of tracing the ramifications. They have not left morality out of their discourses. But they have kept it too much in the back ground. They noticed it shortly, generally, incidentally ; in a manner which, while perhaps they were eminent as private patterns of moral duties, might not sufficiently guard an unwary hearer against a reduced estimate of practical holiness, nor exempt themselves from the suspicion of undervaluing moral obedience. Pref. pp. 7, 8.
To the truth of these remarks we cordially assent, as they point to a defect in the ministrations of some excellent men, which the judicious part of the public have long lamented, and which Mr. Gisborne, in his present work, has taught his contemporaries how to remedy. Extremes naturally lead to each other. The peculiar doctrines of the gospel had been so long neglected by the most celebrated preachers, and the pernicious consequences of that neglect, in wearing out every trace of genuine religion, had been so deeply felt, that it is not to be wondered at if the first attempts to correct the evil were accompanied with a tendency to the contrary extreme. In many situations, those who attempted to revive doctrines which had long been considered as obsolete, found themselves much in the same circumstances as missionaries, having intelligence to impart before unknown, and exposed to all the contempt and obloquy which assailed the first preachers of Christianity. While they were engaged in such an undertaking, it is not at all surprising that they confined their attention almost entirely to the doctrines peculiar to the Christian religion, with less care to inculcate and display the moral precepts which it includes in common with other systems than their intrinsic importance demanded. They were too much occupied in removing the rubbish and laying the foundations, to permit them to carry the superstructure very high. They insisted in general terms on the performance of moral duties, urged the necessity of that holiness without which none shall see the Lord,' and, by a forcible application of truth to the conscience, produced in many instances the most surprising, as well as the most happy effects.' But still, in consequence of limiting their ministry too much to the first elements of the gospel, and dwelling chiefly on topics calculated to
alarm the careless and console the faithful, a wrong taste began to pre vail among their hearers; a disrelish of moral discussions, a propensity to contemplate Christianity under one aspect alone, that of a system of relief for the guilty, instead of a continual discipline of the heart. Those wished for stimulants and cordials, whose situation required alteratives and correctives. Preachers and hearers have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the fear of being reproached as 'legal,' deterred some good men from insisting so much on moral and practical subjects as their own good sense would have dictated. By this means the malady became more inveterate, till the inherent corruption of human nature converted the doctrine of the gospel in a greater or less degree into the leaven of antinomianism. An error, which at first appeared trivial, at length proved serious; and thus it came to pass that the fabric of sacred truth was almost universally reared in such a manner, as to deviate sensibly from the primitive model.
When we look at Christianity in the New Testament, we see a set of discoveries, promises, and precepts, adapted to influence the whole character; it presents an object of incessant solicitude, in the pursuit of which new efforts are to be exerted, and new victories accomplished, in a continued course of well doing, till we reach the heavenly mansions. There is scarce a spring in the human frame and constitution it is not calculated to touch, nor any portion of human agency which is exempted from its control. Its resources are inexhaustible ; and the considerations by which it challenges attention, embrace whatever is most awful or alluring in the whole range of possible existence. Instead of being allowed to repose on his past attainments, or to flatter himself with the hope of success without the exercise of diligence and watchfulness, the Christian is commanded to work out his salvation with fear and trembling. In the actual exhibition of religion, the solicitude of serious minds has been made to turn too much on a particular crisis, which has been presented in a manner so insulated, that nothing in the order of means seemed instrumental to its production. In short, things have been represented in such a manner, as was too apt to produce despondency before conversion, and presumption after it.
It must be allowed, the judicious management of practical subjects, is more difficult than the discussion of doctrinal points; which may also account, in part, for the prevalence of the evil we are now speaking of. In treating a point of doctrine, the habit of belief almost supersedes the necessity of proof; the mind of the hearer is usually pre-occupied in favor of the conclusions to be established ; nor is much address or ingenuity necessary to conduct him in a path in which he has long been accustomed to tread. The materials are prepared to the preacher's hands; a set of texts with their received interpretations stand ready for his use; the compass of thought which is required is very limited, and this little circle has been beaten so often, that an ordinary understanding moves through it with mechanical facility. To discuss a doctrinal position to the satisfaction of a common audience, requires the smallest possible exertion of intellect. The tritest arguments are in fact the best; the most powerful considerations to enforce assent are rendered by that very quality the most conspicuous, as the sun announces himself by his superior splendor. În delineating the duties of life, the task is very different. To render these topics interesting, it is necessary to look abroad, to contemplate the principles of human nature, and the diversified modes of human feeling and action. The preacher has not to do with a few rigid and unbending propositions; he is to contemplate and portray a real state of things, a state which is continually changing its aspect while it preserves its essential character, and the particulars of which mock the powers of enumeration. If he does not think with great originality, he must at least think for himself; he must use his own eyes, though he may report nothing but what has been observed before. As there lies an appeal, on these occasions, to the unbiassed good sense and observation of unlettered minds, the deficiences of an injudicious instructor are sure to be detected. His principles will fail of interesting for want of exemplification ; or bis details will be devoid of dignity, and his delineations of human life disgust by their deviation from nature and from truth.
In points of casuistry, difficulties will occur which can only be solved and disentangled by nice discrimination, combined with extensive knowledge. The general precepts, for example, of justice and humanity, may be faithfully inculcated, and earnestly insisted on, without affording a ray of useful direction to a doubting conscience. While all men acknowledge the indispensable obligation of these precepts, it is not always easy to discover what is the precise line of action they enforce. In the application of general rules to particular cases of conduct, many relations must be surveyed, opposing claims must be reconciled and adjusted, and the comparative value of different species of virtue established upon just and solid principles.
These difficulties have been evaded, rather than overcome, by the greater part of moralizing preachers; who have contented themselves with retailing extracts from the works of their celebrated predecessors, or with throwing together a few loose and undigested thoughts on a moral duty, without order and arrangement, or the smallest effort to impress its obligation upon the conscience,
or to deduce it from its proper sources. To the total want of unction, to the cold, pagan, anti-christian cast of these compositions, joined to their extreme superficiality, must be ascribed, in a great measure, the disgust which many serious minds have contracted against the introduction of moral topics into the pulpit. Our readers will not suspect we mean to apply this censure indiscriminately, or that we are insensible to the extraordinary merits of a Barrow or of a Tillotson, who have cultivated Christian morals with so universal an applause of the English public. We admire, as much as it is possible for our readers to admire, the rich invention, the masculine sense, the exuberantly copious, yet precise and energetic diction, which distinguish the first of these writers, who by a rare felicity of genius united in himself the most distinguishing qualities of the mathematician and of the orator. We are astonished at perceiving in the same person, and in the same composition, the close logic of Aristotle, combined with the amplifying powers of Plato. The candor, the good sense, the natural arrangement, the unpremeditated graces of Tillotson, if they excite less admiration, give us almost equal pleasure. It is indeed the peculiar boast of the English nation, to have produced a set of divines, who, being equally acquainted with classical antiquity and inspired writ, and capable of joining, to the deepest results of unassisted reason, the advantages of a superior illumination, have delivered down to posterity a body of moral instruction, more pure, copious, and exact, than subsists among any other people; and had they appealed more frequently to the peculiar principles of the gospel, had they infused a more evangelical spirit into their discourses, instead of representing Christianity too much as a mere code of morals, they would have left us nothing to wish or to regret. Their decision of moral questions was for the most part unquestionably just ; but they contemplated moral duties too much apart, neglecting to blend them sufficiently with the motives and principles of pure revelation, after the manner of the inspired writers; and, supposing them to believe, they forgot to inculcate, the fundamental truth-that by the deeds of the law no flesh living shall be justified. Those internal dispositions, whence right conduct can alone flow, were too little insisted on; the agency of the Spirit was not sufficiently honored or acknowledged; and the subordination of the duties of the second, to those of the first table, not enough kept in view. The virtues they recommended and enforced, were too often considered as the native growth of the human heart, instead of being represented as "fruits of the Spirit.' Jesus Christ was not laid as the foundation of morality; and a very sparing use was made of the motives to its practice deduced from his promises, his example, and his sacrifice. Add to this,