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TESTIMONY OF CONSCIENCE.
(First printed in 1744.)
2 Cor. i. 12.
For our rejcicing is this, the testimony of our
THERE is no word more frequently in the mouths of men than that of conscience, and the meaning of it is in some measure generally understood : however, because it is likewise a word extremely abused by many people, who apply other meanings to it, which God Almighty never intended; I shall explain it to you in the clearest manner I am able. The word Conscience properly signifies that knowledge which a man hath within himself of his own thoughts and actions. And because if a man judgeth fairly of his own actions, by comparing them with the law of God, his mind will either approve or condemn him, according as he hath done good or evil; therefore this knowledge or conscience may properly be called both an accuser and a judge. So that whenever our conscience accuseth us, we are certainly guilty; but we are not al
ways innocent, when it doth not accuse us : for
often through the hardness of our hearts, or the fondness and favour we bear to ourselves, or through ignorance or neglect, we do not suffer our conscience to take any cognisance of several sins we commit. There is another office likewise belonging to conscience, which is that of being our director and guide ; and the wrong use of this hath been the occasion of more evils under the sun than almost all other causes put together. For, as conscience is nothing else but the knowledge we have of what we are thinking and doing; so it can guide us no farther than that knowledge reacheth: and therefore God hath placed conscience in us to be our director only in those actions, which Scripture and reason plainly tells us to be good or evil. But in cases too difficult or doubtful for us to comprehend or determine, there conscience is not concerned; because it cannot advise in what it doth not understand, nor decide where it is itself in doubt : but by God's great mercy, those difficult points are never of absolute necessity to our salvation. There is likewise another evil, that men often say,' a thing is against their conscience, when really it is not. For instance: ask any of those who differ from the worship established, why they do not come to church : they will say, they dislike the ceremonies, the
prayers, the habits, and the like ; and therefore it goes against their conscience : but they are mistaken, their teacher hath put those words into their mouth ; for a man's conscience can go no higher than his knowledge ; and therefore till he has thoroughly examined by Scripture, and the practice of the ancient church, whether those points are blameable or not, his conscience cannot possibly direct him to condema them. Hence
have likewise arisen those mistakes about what is usually called liberty of conscience; which, properly speaking, is no more than a liberty of knowing our own thoughts; which liberty no one can take from
But those words have obtained quite different meanings: liberty of conscience is nowadays not only understood to be the liberty of believing what men please, but also of endeavouring to propagate that belief as much as they can, and to overthrow the faith which the laws have already established, and to be rewarded by the publick for those wicked endeavours : and this is the liberty of conscience which the fanaticks are now openly in the face of the world endeavouring at with their utmost application. At the same time it cannot but be observed, that those very persons, who, under pretence of a publick spirit and tenderness toward their Christian brethren, are so zealous for such a liberty of conscience as this, are of all others the least tender to those who differ from them in the smallest point relating to government; and I wish I could not say, that the Majesty of the living God, may be offended with more security, than the memory of a dead prince. But the wisdom of the world at present seems to agree with that of the heathen emperor, who said, if the gods were offended, it was their own concern, and they were able to vindicate themselves.
But, although conscience hath been abused to those wicked purposes which I have already related, yet a due regard to the directions it plainly gives us, as wel as to its accusations, reproaches, and advices, would be of the greatest use to mankind, both for their present welfare, and future happiness. Therefore, my discourse at this time shall be di
rected to prove to you, that there is no solid, firmi foundation for virtue, but on a conscience which is guided by religion.
In order to this, I shall first show you the weakness and uncertainty of two false principles, which many people set up in the place of conscience, for a guide to their actions.
The first of these principles is, what the world usually calls moral honesty. There are some people, who appear very indifferent as to religion, and yet have the repute of being just and fair in their dealings; and these are generally known by the character of good moral men.
, if you look into the grounds and the motives of such a man's actions, you shall find them to be no other than his own ease and interest. For example : you trust a moral man with your money in the way of trade, you trust another with the defence of your cause at law, and perhaps they both deal justly with you. Why ? not from any regard they have for justice, but because their fortune depends upon their credit, and a stain of open publick dishonesty must be to their disadvantage. But let it consist with such a man's interest and safety to wrong you, and then it will be impossible you can have any hold upon him; because there is nothing left to give him a check, or put in the balance against his profit. For if he hath nothing to govern himself by but the opinion of the world, as long as he can conceal his injustice from the world, he thinks he is safe.
Besides, it is found by experience, that those men who set up for morality without regard to religion, are generally virtuous but in part; they will be just in their dealings between man and man; but if they find themselves disposed to pride, lust, intemperance, or avarice, they do not think their morality concerned to check them in any of these vices; because it is the great rule of such men, that they may lawfully follow the dictates of nature, wherever their safety, health, and fortune are not injured. So that upon the whole there is hardly one vice, which a mere moral man may not, upon some occasions, allow himself to practise.
The other false principle, which some men set up in the place of conscience to be their director in life, is what those who pretend to it call honour.
This word is often made the sanction of an oath; it is reckoned to be a great commendation to be a strict man of honour; and it is commonly under stood, that a man of honour can never be guilty of a base action. This is usually the style of military
persons with titles, and of others who pretend to birth and quality. 'Tis true indeed, that in ancient times it was universally understood, that honour was the reward of virtue ; but, if such honour as is nowadays going will not permit a man to do a base action, it must be allowed, there are few such things as base actions in nature. No man of honour, as that word is usually understood, did ever pretend that his honour obliged him to be chaste or temperate, to pay his creditors, to be useful to his country, to do good to mankind, to endeavour to be wise or learned, to regard his word, his promise, or his oath: or if he hath any of these virtues, they were never learned in the catechism of honour; which contains but two precepts, the punctual payment of debts contracted at play, and the right understanding