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Introductory remarks, statement of the question, and method of
REVEREND AND DEAR BROTHER, Believing you to be a sincere inquirer after truth, and a friend to manly discussion; and feeling persuaded that the genuine doctrines of the gospel will not suffer by free investigation, I am induced to address you these Letters upon the subject of a future retribution, on which a difference of opinion obtains between us. And although I have every assurance of your candor and friendship, still I acknowledge that I feel no small share of diffidence in addressing a brother whose talents have rendered him eminent, and who has been in the ministry inore years than I have been in existence. But prompted by the importance of the subject, and encouraged by the consideration of your candor and Christian affection, I propose
in these Letters to offer such remarks upon your system as occur to my mind, state my own views upon the subject of future punishment, and adduce such evidence from scripture and reason, as has inclined me to believe, that, although all misery will be of limited duration, it will not be bounded by the death of the body.
I enter upon the examination of this subject with the more cheerfulness, from the conviction that I have no
thing to lose. For if the opinion I have embraced, be in accordance with the scriptures, I feel conscious that it cannot be overthrown; and if it be unfounded, the sooner I am convinced of my error, the better. I have nothing to fear, therefore, in this discussion. But on the contrary, though I have not the vanity to suppose that I shall be able to effect any material change in your religious opinion, I trust I shall be able, in some degree, to show the reasons of mine; and what is still more valuable, to show the public that a religious discussion can be carried on in the exercise of Christian feelings, without bitterness or personal reflections.
Neither will the difference of opinion which exists among our brethren, give any occasion for triumph to the daughters of the uncircumcised; for all denominations differ in opinion among themselves. While the believers in endless anisery are divided into numerous sects and parties, and are so embittered against each other, that they will have no fellowship together, and will even exclude each other from the table of their common Master, it cannot be thought strange that a difference of opinion, should exist among the believers in the opposite doctrine. Neither is the existence of controversy in our order an unprecedented thing. The Unitarians, though a respectable and flourishing sect, are greatly divided in opinion ; and public controversy has existed among them, as in the case of Price and Priestley. The Episcopal Church has furnished writers on almost every side of the question. And in our own country, Professor Stuart and Dr. Miller, both orthodox divines and advocates for the doctrine of the Trinity, have lately discussed before the public the subject of the "eternal Sonship of Christ." The Preshyterians at the South have recently been engaged in controversy on the principles of church government. Now should a dif
ference of opinion among us create any alarm, when a difference equally great, exists in every other denomination? Let him that is without sin, cost the first stone.
A difference of sentiment io any denomination is evidence of the sincerity of its professors. The human mind is so constituted, and our educations are so very different, that men will necessarily arrive at different conclusions in matters of religion. No entire sect or party of men, who have courage to think for themselves, and frankness enough to declare their opinions, will be found agreed on every subject. When any entire denomination, therefore, profess to be united on every point, it is a strong presumptive argument, that they are wanting, either in independence or frankness. A diversity of views is not always an evil. It may serve inany valuable purposes. It creates a spirit of inquiry, and calls into exercise many of the latent powers of the mind, which would otherwise have lain dormant, and wasted by inaction. It also opens a broad field for the exercise of that charity which is the distinguishing trait in the character of the Christian, and which is emphatically styled “the bond of perfectness.” Notwithstanding relj. gious controversy has been greatly deprecated by many sincere and pious Christians, I am far from regarding it universally as an evil. A great part of Paul's epistles is of a controversial nature. And was not the glorious reformation from papal superstition effected by controversy ? It is to free and manly discussion, that the doctrines of Protestants owe their rise. And it is by the same means that the doctrine of the Restitution of all things” has been revived in this age and country. To free investigation, then, the Christian public is ipdebted for many of its most valuable blessings.
But religious controversy is not free from abuse. When it is carried on with an improper spirit, it is pro
ductive of mischief. If it originates in ambition, and
ends in bitterness ; if it generates the unhallowed feelings of hatred and ill-will, and destroys affection and
fellowship, it may be regarded as an evil. But then, the fault lies not in controversy itself, but in the parties who engage therein. That disputant who misrepresents his opponent, by artfully giving a false construction to his language, or by passing over his principal argument; who labors to conceal his own views, and wanders from the question at issue, gives evidence of the weakness of his cause, and evinces to the world that he is governed by unchristian feelings, and is contending for mastery rather than truth. But if controversy is properly conducted, it is nothing more than free and rational discussion.
Though in these pages I shall attempt to support the doctrine of a future retribution, you are not to consider that it is from self-interest or personal advantage that I plead for this doctrine. So far as selfish feelings are engaged, they remonstrate against a future retribution. Were I to shape iny religious creed by my own individual feelings, I should exclude all misery, both present and future. If future punishment is true, I am exposed to it as well as others; and hence it cannot be supposed that I flatter myself with any advantage from the truth of this doctrine. But human feelings are not the proper test. Sin always corrupts the mind, and leads the sinper to hope that he may escape the righteous judgments of God. A just retribution is the dread of sinful creatures. When Paul reasoned of a judgment to come, the unbelieving Felix trembled. There is, therefore, much more danger of being biassed against this doctrine, than in its favor. If a future punishment be the truth of God, it is natural to suppose that it will meet with opposition from the selfish feelings of the human heart; while
your scheme will be supported by the same feelings, though it be an error. In order to judge correctly in the case, then, it is necessary that all selfish feelings and personal interest be laid aside.
Perhaps you may say that in the above remarks, I have adopted the maxims laid down by the believers in endless misery. And what of that? Must truth be rejected, because it is advanced by those who oppose our general system? If we are candid, we shall be willing to receive the truth, by whomsoever it may be advanced. I am far from desiring to differ from every other denomination. Shall we reject the being of a God, because the abetters of endless tornent advocate that doctrine ? Some of our public laborers appear to think that in order to support our general system, we must reject every doctrine held by any other sect.
But this thirst for innovation is extremely dangerous. It may show that they have a zeal, but it shows at the same time, that it is a zeal "not according to knowledge.” We believe that many of our brethren have run into an extreme by embracing the doctrine of endless misery. And this very consideration ought to teach us caution, that we may avoid the other. Nothing is more natural than for men to go from one extreme to its opposite. And unless our denomination have exercised more wisdom than all which have gone before them, it is just to conclude, that some of us, in coming off from endless nisery, have carried our views into the other extreme. Surely, that person would be wanting in modesty, who should assert that every denomination but his own, embraced nothing but error.
There is not that difference between the various theories, which some people imagine. The fundamental doctrines of the gospel are embraced by almost every denomination, how much soever they may differ in explaining them.