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I he celebrated Dr. Price, in his valuable “ Observa- . tions on the Importance of the American Revolution," addressed to the people of the United States, observes, that, “ It is a common opinion, that there are some Doctrines so sacred, and others of so bad a tendency, that no Publick Discussion of them ought to be allowed.” Were this a right opinion, all the persecution that has ever been practised would be justified. For if it is a part of the duty of civil magistrates to prevent the discussion of such Doctrines, they must, in doing this, act on their own judgments of the nature and tendency of Doctrines ; and, consequently, they must have a right to prevent the discussion of all Doctrines which they think to be too sacred for discussion, or too dangerous in their tendency; and this right they must exercise in the only way in which civil power is capable of exercising it; by inflicting penalties upon all who oppose sacred Doctrines, or who maintain pernicious opinions,” In Mahometan countries, therefore, magistrates would have a right to silence, and punish all who oppose the divine mission of Mahomet, a doctrine there reckoned of the most sacred nature. The like is true of the doctrines of transubstantiation, worship of the Virgin Mary, &c. &c. in Popish countries; and of the doctrines of the Trinity, Satisfaction, &c. in Protestant countries. All such laws are right if the opinion I have mentioned is right. But in reality, civil power has nothing to do in such matters, and civil governors go miserably out of their proper province, whenever they take upon them the care of truth, or the support of any doctrinal points. They are not judges of truth, and if they pretend to decide about it, they will decide wrong. This all the countries under
Heaven think of the application of civil power to doct-rinal points in every country, but their own. It is indeed superstition, idolatry, and nonsense, that civil power at present supports almost every where, under the idea of supporting sacred truth, and opposing dangerous error. Would not therefore its perfect neutrality be the greatest blessing ? Would not the interest of truth gain unspeakably, were all the Rulers of States to aim at nothing but keeping the peace ; or did they consider themselves bound to take care, not of the future, but the present interest of man ; not of their souls, and of their faith, but of their persons and property ; not of any ecclesiastical, but secular matters only?
All the experience of past time proves, that the consequence of allowing civil power to judge of the nature and tendency of Doctrines, must be making it a hind. rance to the progress of truth, and an enemy to the improvement of the world.
I would extend these observations to all points of faith, however sacred they may be deemed. Nothing reasonable can suffer by discussion. All Doctrines, really sacred, must be clear, and incapable of being oppos--ed with success.'
• That immoral tendency of Doctrines which has been urged as a reason against allowing the publick discussion of them, may be either avowed and direct ; or only a consequence with which they are charged. If it is avowed and direct, such doctrines certainly will not spread ; the principles rooted in human nature will resist them, and the advocates of them will be soon disgraced. If, on the contrary, it is only a consequence with which a Doctrine is charged, it should be considered how apt all parties are to charge the doctrines they oppose with bad tendencies. It is well known that Calvinists, and Arminians, Trinitarians and Socinians, Fatalists and Free-Willers, are continually exelaiming against one another's opinions, as dangerous and licentious. Even Christianity itself could not, at its first introduction, escape this accusation. The professors of it were considered as Atheists, because they opposed Pagan Idolatry ; and their religion was, on this account, reckoned a destructive and pernicious enthusiasm. If
therefore, the Rulers of a State are to prohibit the pro. pagation of all doctrines, in which they apprehend immoral tendencies, an opening will be made, as I have before observed, for every species of persecution. There will be no doctrine, however true, or important, the avowal of which will not, in some country or other, be subjected to civil penalties.”
These observations bear the stamp of good sense, and their truth has been abundantly confirmed by experience. And it is the peculiar honour of the United States, that in conformity with the principles of these observations, perfect freedom of opinion, and of speech are here established by law, and are the birthright of every citizen thereof. Our country is the only one which has not been guilty of the folly of establishing the ascendency of one set of religious opinions, and persecuting, or tolerating all others; and which does not permit any man to harrass his neighbour because he thinks differently from himself. In consequence of these excellent institutions, difference of religious sentiment makes here no breach in private friendship, and works no danger to the publick security. This is as it should be : for, in matters of opinion, especially with regard to so important a thing as Religion, it is every man's natural right, and duty, to think for himself; and to judge upon such evidence as he can procure, after he has used his best endeavours to get information. Human decisions are of no weight in this matter, for another man has no more right to determine what my opinions shall be, than I have to determine what another man's opinions shall be. It is amazing that one man can dare to presume he has such a right over another; and that any man can be so weak, and credulous, as to imagine, that another has such right over him.
As it is every man's natural right, and duty to think and judge for himself in matters of opinion ; so he should be allowed freely to bring forward, and defend his opinions, and to endeavour, when he judges proper, to convince others also of their truth.
For unless all men are allowed freely to profess their opinions, the means of information, with respect to opinions, must in a great measure be wanting; and just in
quiries into their truth be almost impracticable ; and, by consequence, our natural right, and duty to think, and judge for ourselves, must be rendered almost nugatory, or be subverted, for want of materials whereon to employ our minds. A man by himself, without communication with other minds, can make no great progress in knowledge ; and besides, an individual is indisposed to use his own strength, when an undisturbed laziness, ignorance, and prejudice give him full satisfaction as to the truth of his opinions. But if there be a free prófession, or communication of sentiments, every man will have an opportunity of acquainting himsef with all that ean be known froni others. And many for their own satisfaction will make inquiries, and in order to ascertain the truth of opinions, will desire to know all that can be said on any question.
If such liberty of professing, and teaching be not allow ed, error, if authorized, will keep its ground; and truth, if dormant, will never be brought to light; or, if authorized, will be supported on a false, and absurd foundation, and such as would equally support error; and, if received on the ground of authority, will not be in the least meritorious to its professors.
Besides, not to encourage capable and honesť men to profess, and defend their opinions when different from ours, is to distrust the truth of our own opinions, and to fear the light. Such conduct must, in a country of sense, and learning, increase the number of unbelievers, already so greatly complained of: who, if they see matters of opinion not allowed to be professed, and impartially debated, think, justly perhaps, that they have foul play, and therefore reject many things as false, and ill grounded, which otherwise they might perhaps receive as truths.
The grand principle of men considered as having relation to the Deity, and under an obligation to be religious, is, that they ought to consult their reason, and seek every where for the best instruction; and of Chris. tians, and Protestants the duty, and professed principle is, to consult reason, and the Scripture, as the rule of their faith, and practice.
But how ean these, which are practical principles, be duly put in practice, unless all be at liberty, at all times, and in all points, to consider, and debate with others, (as well as with themselves,) what reason and Scripture say; and to profess, and act openly, according to what they are convinced they say ? How can we become better informed with regard to religion, than by using the best means of information ? which consist in consulting reason, and scripture, and calling in the aid of others. And of what use is it to consult reason, and Scripture at all, as any means of information, if we are not, upon conviction, to follow their dictates ?
No man has any reason to apprehend any ill consequences to truth, (for which alone he ought to have any concern,) from free inquiry, nnd debate. For truth, is not a thing to dread examination, but when fairly proposed to an unbiassed understanding, is like light to the eye; it must distinguish itself from error, as light does distinguish itself from darkness. For, while free debate is allowed, truth is in no danger, for it will never want a professor thereof, nor an advocate to offer some plea in its behalf. And it can never be wholly banished, but where human decisions, backed by human power, carry all before them.
We ought to examine the foundations of opinions, not only, that we may attain the discovery of truth ; but we ought to do so, on this account, because that it is our duty ; and the way to recommend ourselves to the favour of God. For opinions, how true soever, when the effect of education, or tradition, or interest, or passion, can never recommend a man to God. For those ways have no merit in them, and are the worst a man can possibly take to obtain truth : and therefore, though they may be objects of forgiveness, they can never be of reward from Him.
Having premised these observations in order to persuade, and dispose the reader to be candid, I will now declare the motives, which induced me to submit to the consideration of the intelligent, the contents of this volume. The Author has spared, he thinks, no pains to arrive at certain Truth in matters of Religion ; the sense of which is what distinguishes man from the brute.