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LETTERS TO DR. HORSLEY,
IN ANSWER TO HIS
THE HISTORY OF THE CORRUPTIONS OF CHRISTIANITY; WITH ADDITIONAL EVIDENCE
PRIMITIVE CHRISTIAN CHURCH WAS UNITARIAN.
Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off. 1 KINGS XX. 11.
My design in writing the History of the Corruptions of Christianity, it will easily be perceived, was to compose a work proper for the use of all Christians, learned and unlearned, and indeed chiefly the latter. Also, having an extensive object before me, I did not give much more attention to one part of the scheme than to another. On these accounts I avoided all unnecessary quotations from original writers in the languages in which they wrote, especially in Greek, which I had great difficulty in getting printed; but I gave some passages that were of particular value, and in Latin, and distinctly referred to as many others as I had actually made use of myself; making a point of referring to none, at first or second hand, of which I saw any reason to doubt.
It has happened that hitherto the first article in my work, viz. The History of Opinions concerning Christ, has attracted the more particular notice of critics, which has led me to study this subject more than I should otherwise have done; and I think it will probably engage my attention some time longer. Indeed, as the question is of particular importance, I think it right to take every method in my
* Vol. V. pp. 13—90.
power to invite and promote the fullest discussion of it. With this view, I replied to some remarks of a writer in the Monthly Review, which, though not in the least affecting my principal argument, gave me an opportunity to add some new illustrations.
Dr. Horsley's Charge to his Clergy† has afforded me another opportunity of re-examining the subject; and the result, which is now before the reader, has been, as I think, a further illustration and a stronger confirmation of my original position, viz. that the belief that Christ was a mere man, naturally possessed of no other powers than other men have, but a distinguished messenger of God, and the chief instrument in his hands for the good of men, was the original faith of the Christian Church, consisting both of Jews and Gentiles.
This controversy, I hope, will continue, either with Dr. Horsley or some other person. Nothing, however, shall be wanting on my part to keep it up, so long as any new light shall appear to be thrown upon the question in debate; and after this I intend to compose an entire work on this subject only; stating, in as clear a light as I shall be able, the evidence of the above important truth, (for such I cannot help considering it,) as it shall then appear to me, with all the proper authorities in the original languages, and leave it to make whatever impression it may on the minds of others, having then done my duty with respect to it.
In the mean time, I am by no means sanguine in my expectations from the effect of the most forcible arguments, on the minds of those who are at present indisposed to receive the opinion that I contend for, in consequence of strong early prejudices in favour of a different one; prejudices which have been confirmed by much reading, thinking, and conversation, especially if those who are influenced by them be advanced in life. It is happy for the cause of truth, as well as other valuable purposes, that man is mortal; and that while the species continues, the individuals go the stage. For otherwise the whole species would soon arrive at its maximum in all improvements, as individuals now do.
If any person ought to have candour for others in this respect, I ought; having had abundant experience of the
⚫ For June, 1783. See supra, pp. 3-87.
"A Charge to the Clergy of the Archdeaconry of St. Albans," 1789. Republished by Bishop Horsley, in his "Tracts in Controversy with Dr. Priestley," 1789, pp. 1-80.
difficulty with which deep-rooted prejudices give way to the strongest evidence, even when the mind is naturally active, and the attention is constantly kept in a state of inquiry. On this account, a short history of the progress of my own thoughts with respect to this subject may be useful. To myself the reflection upon it is highly so, at the same time that it is not a little humbling.
Having been educated in the strictest principles of Calvinism, and having from my early years had a serious turn of mind, promoted no doubt by a weak and sickly constitution, I was very sincere and zealous in my belief of the doctrine of the Trinity; and this continued till I was about nineteen; and then I was as much shocked on hearing of any who denied the divinity of Christ (thinking it to be nothing less than impiety and blasphemy) as any of my opponents can be now. I therefore truly feel for them, and most sincerely excuse them.
About the age of twenty, being then in a regular course of theological studies, I saw reason to change my opinion, and became an Arian; and notwithstanding what appeared to me a fair and impartial study of the Scriptures, and though I had no bias on my mind arising from subscribed creeds and confessions of faith, &c., I continued in that persuasion fifteen or sixteen years;† and yet in that time I was well acquainted with Dr. Lardner, Dr. Fleming, and several other zealous Socinians, especially my friend Mr. Graham. The first theological tract of mine (which was on the Doctrine of Atonement) was published at the particular request and under the direction of Dr. Lardner; § and he approving of the scheme which I had then formed, of giving a short view (which was all that I had then thought of) of the progress of the corruptions of Christianity, gave me a few hints with respect to it. But still I continued till after his death indisposed to the Socinian hypothesis. After this, continuing my study of the Scriptures, with the help of his Letters on the Logos, I at length changed my opinion, and became what is called a Socinian; and in this I see continually more reason to acquiesce, though it was a long time before the arguments in favour of it did more than barely preponderate in my mind. ||
See supra, p. 37.
† See Vol. I. Memoirs, 31, 48.
See Vol. I. Memoirs, 11; Vol. III. p. 199. For the arguments which had the principal weight with me at that time, and particularly those texts of scripture which so long retarded my change of opinion, I refer my readers to the Theological Repository, III. pp. 345-363. (P.)
I was greatly confirmed in this doctrine after I was fully satisfied that man is of an uniform composition, and wholly mortal; and that the doctrine of a separate immaterial soul, capable of sensation and action when the body is in the grave, is a notion borrowed from Heathen philosophy, and unknown to the Scriptures. Of this I had for a long time a mere suspicion; but having casually mentioned it as such, and a violent outcry being raised against me on that account,* I was induced to give the greatest attention to the question, to examine it in every light, and to invite the fullest discussion of it. This terminated in as full a conviction with respect to this subject as I have with respect to any other whatever. The reasons on which that conviction is founded may be seen in my Disquisitions on Matter and Spirit,† of which I have lately published a new and improved edition.
Being now fully persuaded that Christ was a man like ourselves, and consequently that his pre-existence, as well as that of other men, was a notion that had no foundation in reason or in the Scriptures; and having been gradually led (in consequence of wishing to trace the principal corruptions of Christianity) to give particular attention to ecclesiastical history, I could not help thinking but that (since the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ was not the doctrine of the Scriptures, and therefore could not have been taught by the apostles) there must be some traces of the rise and progress of the doctrine of the Trinity, and some historical evidence that Unitarianism was the general faith of Christians in the apostolical age, independent of the evidence which arose from its being the doctrine of the Scriptures.
In this state of mind, the reader will easily perceive that I naturally expected to find, what I was previously well persuaded was to be found; and in time I collected much more evidence than I at first expected, considering the early rise, and the long and universal spread, of what I deem to be a radical corruption of the genuine Christian doctrine. This evidence I have fairly laid before the reader. He must judge of the weight of it, and also make whatever allowance he may think necessary for my particular situation and prejudices.
I am well aware that it is naturally impossible that the evidence I have produced should impress the minds of those who are Arians or Athanasians, as it will those of Socinians;
• See Vol. III. pp. 181, 182, 202.
+ Vol. III. pp. 242-258.
nor are men to be convinced of the proper humanity of Christ, by arguments of this kind. They must begin, as I did, with the study of the Scriptures; and whatever be the result of that study, it will be impossible for them, let them discipline their minds as they will, not to be influenced in the historical inquiry, as I was, by their previous persuasion concerning the subject of it. If, however, they should be so far impressed with the historical arguments, as to think it probable that the Christian church was in a very early period Unitarian; it will, no doubt, lead them to expect that they shall find the doctrine of the Scriptures, truly interpreted, to be so too.
With respect to myself, I do not know that I can do any thing more. Being persuaded, as I am, from the study of the Scriptures, that Christ is properly a man, I cannot cease to think so; nor can I possibly help the influence of that persuasion in my historical researches. Let other persons write as freely on their respective hypotheses as I have done on mine; and then indifferent persons, and especially younger persons, whose minds have not acquired the stiffness of ours, who are turned fifty, may derive benefit from it.
Firm as my persuasion now is concerning the proper humanity of Christ, (a persuasion that has been the slow growth of years, and the result of much anxious and patient. thinking,) I do not know that, in the course of my inquiry, I have been under the influence of prejudice more than all other men naturally are. As to reputation, a man may distinguish himself just as much by the defence of old systems as by the erection of new ones; but I have neither formed any new systems, nor have I particularly distinguished myself in the defence of old ones. When I first became an Arian, and afterwards a Socinian, I was only a convert, in company with many others; and was far from having any thoughts of troubling the world with publications on the subject. This I have been led to do by a series of events, of which I had no foresight, and of which I do not see the issue.
The conclusion that I have formed, with respect to the subject of this work, and my exertions in support of it, are, however, constantly ascribed by my opponents to a force of préjudice and prepossession, so strong as to pervert my judgment in the plainest of all cases. Of this I may not be a proper judge; but analogy may be some guide to myself as well as to others in this case.
Now, what appears to have been my disposition in other