Изображения страниц

tion. So far from the government having used any undue rigour towards the petitioner, he (Mr. F.) believed that the then Secretary for Ireland had stretched his authority in his favour.

Mr. Peel said, that although he did not recollect the particular facts of the case, he was certain the object of government in dismissing the petitioner was not to provide for any other individual.

On the motion that the petition do lie on the table,

Mr. Wynn observed, that he could not perceive the propriety of allowing the petition to lie on the table, unless it was intended to follow it up by some further measure. He, however, did not see what measure could now be adopted, and therefore thought it useless to place the petition before the public.

Upon the question that the petition do lie on the table, the House divided: Ayes 26. Noes 51.

List of the Minority.

[blocks in formation]

RELIGIOUS OPINIONS-PETITION OF MINISTERS OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION FOR FREE DISCUSSION.] Mr. Hume rose for the purpose of presenting a petition which he considered of great importance. But before he did so, he begged to correct an error which had got abroad respecting what he had said last night. He had been made to say in one publication, that he disapproved of dissenters altogether; when, in fact, he had only expressed his disapprobation of that sect to which an hon. member belonged. His acquaintance lying very much among dissenters, many of whom he knew to be most intelligent and virtuous men, he should have belied his own experience if he had said so. He was of opinion, that general censures were always wrong; and, as his feelings had been excited on the occasion to which he alluded; by the in

tolerance displayed by that sect of which alone he spoke, he took the opportunity of this cooler moment to explain what he had said. Having done so, he would add, that he regretted that any person should have presumed to arraign his conduct, and to have designated him as the advocate of a person whose opinions he was so far from advocating, that if that person had listened to his advice, he would long ago have abstained from publishing them. He was well convinced that to attack prejudices in the way Mr. Carlile had attacked what he considered prejudices, was the best means of diffusing and strengthening them. He did hope that, in future, no person would take the liberty of endeavouring to represent him as the advocate of such opinions. The petition to which he now called the attention of the House was signed by 2,047 persons, members of Christian congregations, of whom 98 were ministers, among the latter were names which the House would agree were entitled to considerable respect, such as those of Dr. Evans, Dr. Jones, Dr. Rees, Dr. Clarke, Mr. Barclay, Mr. Roscoe, and others. A more sensible petition, and one more consistent with the spirit of Christianity, had, perhaps, never been presented to the House. He could not conceive that any sincere believer in the doctrines of the Christian religion could doubt, that any thing, which tended to stamp the character of persecution upon that religion, was more calculated to bring it into contempt, than all the scoffs and the arguments of its worst enemies. He proposed to follow up the reading of the petition with a motion which he should submit from a sense of duty; and which, if adopted by the House, as he anxiously hoped it would be, would tend to check the mischief which had been caused by recent proceedings.

The petition was then brought up and read; and was as follows:

"The humble Petition of the undersigned Ministers and Members of Christian Congregations,

"Sheweth; That your petitioners are sincere believers in the Christian Revelation from personal conviction on examination of the evidences on its behalf; and are thankful to Almighty God for the unspeakable blessing of the Gospel, which they regard as the most sacred sanction, the best safeguard, and the most power

[ocr errors]

ful motive, of morality, as the firmest support and most effectual relief amidst the afflictions and troubles of this state of humanity, and as the surest foundation of the hope of a life to come, which hope they consider to be in the highest degree conducive to the dignity, purity, and happiness of society.

That with these views and feelings, your petitioners beg leave to state to your honourable House, that they behold with sorrow and shame the prosecutions against persons who have printed or published books which are, or are presumed to be, hostile to the Christian religion, from the full persuasion that such prosecutions are inconsistent with, and contrary to, both the spirit and the letter of the Gospel, and, moreover, that they are more favourable to the spread of infidelity, which they are intended to check, than to the support of the Christian faith, which they are professedly undertaken to uphold.

"Your petitioners cannot but consider all Christians bound by their religious profession to bow with reverence and submission to the precepts of the Great Founder of our Faith; and nothing appears to them plainer in the Gospel than that it forbids all violent measures for its propagation, and all vindictive measures for its justification and defence. The Author and Finisher of Christianity has declared, that his kingdom is not of this world; and, as in his own example he showed a perfect pattern of compassion towards them that are ignorant and out of the way of truth, of forbearance towards objectors, and of forgiveness of wilful enemies; so in his moral laws he has prohibited the spirit that would attempt to root up speculative error with the arm of flesh, or that would call down fire from heaven to consume the unbelieving, and has commanded the exercise of meekness, tenderness, and brotherly love, towards all mankind, as the best and only means of promoting his cause upon earth, and the most acceptable way of glorifying the Great Father of mercies, who is kind even to the unthankful and the evil.

"By these reasonable, charitable, and peaceful means, the Christian religion was not only established originally, but also supported for the three first centuries of the Christian era, during which it triumphed over the most fierce and potent opposition, unaided by temporal power; and your petitioners humbly submit to your honourable House, that herein con

sists one of the brightest evidences of the truth of the Christian religion; and that they are utterly at a loss to conceive, how that which is universally accounted to have been the glory of the Gospel in its beginnings, should now cease to be accounted its glory, or how it should at this day be less the maxim of Christianity, and less the rule of the conduct of Christians, than in the days of those that are usually denominated the fathers of the churchthat it is no part of religion to compel religion, which must be received, not by force, but of free choice.

"Your petitioners would earnestly represent to your honourable House, that our holy religion has borne uninjured every test that reason and learning have applied to it, and that its divine origin, its purity, its excellence, and its title to universal acceptation, have been made more manifest by every new examination and discussion of its nature, pretensions, and claims. Left to itself, under the divine blessing, the reasonableness and innate excellence of Christianity will infallibly promote its influence over the understandings and hearts of mankind; but when the angry passions are suffered to rise in its professed defence, these provoke the like passions in hostility to it, and the question is no longer one of pure truth, but of power on the one side, and of the capacity of endurance on the other.

"It appears to your petitioners that it is altogether unnecessary and impolitic to recur to penal laws in aid of Christianity. The judgment and feelings of human nature, testified by the history of man in all ages and nations, incline mankind to religion; and it is only when they erringly associate religion with fraud and injustice, that they can be brought in any large number to bear the evils of scepticism and unbelief. Your petitioners acknowledge and lament the wide diffusion amongst the people of sentiments unfriendly to the Christian faith; but they cannot refrain from stating to your honourable House their conviction that this unexampled state of the public mind is mainly owing to the prosecution of the holders and propagators of infidel opinions. Objections to Christianity have thus become familiar to the readers of the weekly and daily journals-curiosity has been stimulated with regard to the publications prohibited an adventitious, unnatural, and dangerous importance has been given

to sceptical arguments-a suspicion has been excited in the minds of the multitude that the Christian religion can be upheld only by pains and penalties, and sympathy has been raised on behalf of the sufferers, whom the uninformed and unwise regard with the reverence and confidence that belong to the character of martyrs to the truth.

"Your petitioners would remind your honourable House, that all history testifies the futility of all prosecutions for mere opinions, unless such prosecutions proceed the length of exterminating the holders of the opinions prosecuted-an extreme from which the liberal spirit and the humanity of the present times revolt. "The very same maxims and principles that are pleaded to justify the punishment of unbelievers would authorize Christians of different denominations to vex and harass each other on the alleged ground of want of faith, and likewise form an apology for heathen persecutions against Christians, whether the persecutions that were anciently carried on against the divinelytaught preachers of our religion, or those that may now be instituted by the ruling party in Pagan countries, where Christian missionaries are so laudably employed, in endeavouring to expose the absurdity, folly, and mischievous influence of idolatry. "Your petitioners would entreat your honourable House to consider, that belief does not in all cases depend upon the will, and that inquiry into the truth of Christianity will be wholly prevented, if persons are rendered punishable for any given result of inquiry. Firmly attached as your petitioners are to the religion of the Bible, they cannot but consider the liberty of rejecting, to be implied in that of embracing it. The unbeliever may, indeed, be silenced by his fears, but it is scarcely conceivable that any real friend to Christianity, or any one who is solicitous for the improvement of the human mind, the diffusion of knowledge, and the establishment of truth, should wish to reduce any portion of mankind to the necessity of concealing their honest judgment upon moral and theological questions, and of making an outward profession that shall be inconsistent with their inward persua


"Your petitioners are not ignorant that a distinction is commonly made between those unbelievers that argue the question of the truth of Christianity calmly and dispassionately, and those that treat the

sacred subject with levity and ridicule; but although they feel the strongest disgust at every mode of discussion which approaches to indecency and profaneness, they cannot help thinking that it is neither wise nor safe to constitute the manner and temper of writing an object of legal visitation; inasmuch as it is impossible to define where argument ends and evil speaking begins. The reviler of Christianity appears to your petitioners to be the least formidable of its enemies; because his scoffs can rarely fail of arousing against him public opinion, than which nothing more is wanted to defeat his end. Between freedom of discussion and absolute persecution there is no assignable medium; and nothing seems to your petitioners more impolitic than to single out the intemperate publications of modern unbelievers for legal reprobation, and thus by implication to give a licence to the grave reasonings of those that preceded them in the course of open hostility to the Christian religion, which reasonings are much more likely to make a dangerous impression upon the minds of their readers. But independently of considerations of expediency and policy, your petitioners cannot forbear recording their humble protest against the principle implied in the prosecutions alluded to, that a religion proceeding from Infinite Wisdom and protected by Almighty Power depends upon human patronage for its perpetuity and influence. Wherefore they pray your honourable House to take into consideration the prosecutions carrying on, and the punishments already inflicted upon unbelievers, in order to exonerate Christianity from the opprobrium and scandal so unjustly cast upon it, of being a sys tem that countenances intolerance and persecution.

"And your petitioners will ever pray, &c."

On the motion that the petition be printed,

Mr. Butterworth asked, by how many ministers of the Church of England it was signed, and of what class of dissenters the other petitioners consisted.

Mr. Hume replied, that it was signed by dissenters of all classes.

Mr. W. Smith could not see the pertinency of the hon. member's question. The petition was, however, signed, he could assure him, by persons whose religious opinions were as perfectly opposed to each other as possible.

Ordered to be printed.

Mr. Hume then rose for the purpose of making the motion of which he had given notice. His object was, to obtain the admission of that principle, which he had always thought to be part of the law of this country, namely, that every individual was entitled to freedom of discussion on all subjects. At Edinburgh, where he was brought up, it was held, that any man might entertain and express his opinions, unless they became a nuisance to society, when, perhaps, they might be brought under the operation of the common law. Since the year 1817, how ever, a disposition had been manifested to prosecute persons for the publication of old as well as new works, the object of which was, to impugn the authenticity of the Christian faith. He was aware that since the period to which he had referred the number of such publications had increased; but he thought, also, that the progress which had been made in knowledge, and the extension of education to all classes of persons, had brought with it a remedy for this evil. Looking at the advantages which resulted from the freedom of discussion, and the part which able men were always ready to take in behalf of true religion, he thought it would be doing equal injustice to that religion and to the community, to adopt any other means of arriving at the truth than by fair discussion. He had always been led to believe, that the greatest blessing which Englishmen enjoyed was the complete freedom with which they were permitted to express their religious opinions, and to follow whatever sect or persuasion their own opinions coincided with. Recollecting, too, that we enjoyed the blessings of a religion which had been established by means of discussion, and by differing from those which had preceded it, he thought the House would act unjustly, and with bad policy, if it should now turn round upon those who differed from us, as we differed from those who had preceded us, and exercise a rigour which, in our own case, we had been the first to deprecate. Such a course, he was convinced, was more likely to generate doubts and ignorance than to give any stability to the religion. It was quite evident, that persons who wished to investigate religious subjects must meet with a great variety of opinions. Some of these might confirm their belief; while others might give rise to doubts. Now,

he wished to ask, whether it was not proper that they should be allowed to state those doubts, for the purpose of having them refuted, if erroneous? In Christian charity, such an indulgence ought not to be refused to any individual. When he observed thirty or forty sects in this country differing from the Church of England, and differing equally from each other, he thought it was not at all surprising that amongst those who engaged in what might be termed periodical discussion on the subject of religion, many were found who dissented entirely from the great body of sectarians of every description. There was nothing wonderful in such a circumstance; but it was indeed wonderful, that they should be prosecuted and punished for promulgating their opinions in the way of controversy. What right had any set of individuals to set themselves up as following exclusively the true religion? Religion very different from ours was preached and adopted in other countries; and those who pursued such religion proclaimed it to be the true one. Where there was such a diversity of opinion, they, taking the Scriptures as the rule of their conduct and actions, ought to extend to all persons that merciful toleration which the New Testament so forcibly inculcated in every page. They ought not to proceed, in the manner which was now too common, against individuals who differed conscientiously from them on points of religious belief. The perpetration of acts of a physical nature might be prevented by force; but no power, however harshly applied, could control opinions, or make a man receive doctrines which he did not believe to be correct. The government of this country had been tolerant to the Jews. To that race of people who denied altogether the Christian religion, who disbelieved in the divinity of its Great Founder, the most complete toleration was extended. No one atempted to interfere with their opinions. The quakers, who differed on many essential points from the established church, were also tolerated; and the whole body of dissenters, various as were their doctrines, were suffered to preach them without molestation. This was highly to the honour of the country; and he wished, most sincerely, that every species of disability, whether in the nature of a test or otherwise, which applied to the dissenters, should be wholly removed. He should be happy to see every human

on that subject a great change had not taken place in the public mind? That act sets forth-" That any stage-player, performer at May-games, or at any pa

being placed in that situation in which he would be enabled, without any fear of the civil magistrate, to entertain whatever religious opinions he pleased; and to endeavour to obtain, by fair and candid dis-geant, who shall use the name of God, of cussion, information on those points which might not appear sufficiently clear and satisfactory to him. That was the only way by which any man could arrive at a fair conviction. Religion must be implanted in the mind; and nothing but plain argument-nothing but the free discussion of points which an individual conceived to be doubtful-could either alter his mind with respect to any new doctrine, or confirm him in the truth of that which he had been accustomed to uphold. Physical force could have no effect whatever, either in eradicating new, or establishing old opinions. If there had been any thing unreasonable in his proposition, he would not have brought it forward; but, looking over the pages of the Holy Scriptures, he could not find a single sentence that authorized punishment on account of difference of opinion, or that called on the civil magistrate to interfere. The conduct of the Divine Founder of the Christian religion was entirely at variance with this prosecuting spirit. When he was pursued with bitter hate, because he preached new opinions, his prayer was, "Father! forgive them; for they know not what they do." It was in consequence of this mild spirit of forbearance, that the Christian religion had spread and flourished. It was not propagated by the great and the powerful. No; the meek, the lowly, and the humble, were its advocates; and its mild tenets made their way, where force and violence must have failed. That religion had advanced in spite of the efforts of power, in defiance of every species of persecution; and, with that great example before their eyes, ought they now to renew those scenes of persecution and oppression, which the earlier Christians had suffered with so much fortitude? Ought they to immure individuals in dungeons, for doing that which their own ancestors had done -for adopting new opinions? He might be told, "Those persons may express their opinions; but it must be done in a proper way." Now, for his own part, he knew not where the line of distinction was to be drawn, at which ribaldry began and sound discretion ceased. With respect to blasphemy, he would ask any one who referred to the act of James Ist, whether

Jesus Christ, or of the Trinity, shall be adjudged guilty of blasphemy, and shall be subjected to all the penalties by this statute made and provided." Would any man say, after reading this, that a great difference of opinion had not taken place on this point? Was it possible that the provisions of that statute could now be carried into effect, even if it were attempted by the most rigid sectarian? Again, by the 9th and 10th of William, it was provided, that "any person denying the doctrine of the Trinity, or contending that there are more gods than one, or impugning the truth of the Christian religion, shall be adjudged guilty of blasphemy." But, they had themselves done this provision away by an act of the legislature. When this was the case-when such an alteration had been effected in public opinion-he was prevented from seeing clearly what was to be considered blasphemous ribaldry, indecent discussion, or calm and dispassionate reasoning. He knew not what line of discussion was to be tolerated, and what ought to be allow. ed, unless the legislature would define what blasphemy really was. Where there was no definition of that kind, how could any man who reasoned on a religious subject be satisfied that in his argument he avoided blasphemy? How could he tell, let his intentions be ever so pure, that he did not expose himself to the visitation of the civil magistrate? He therefore submitted, that the uncertainty which prevailed with respect to what was and what was not blasphemy, ought to put an end to accusations of that nature, and to the punishment arising from them. Doubtless it would be said, that individuals had no right to express opinions which were different from those held by the great mass of the community. But, if this principle had been always acted on, Christianity never could have made the progress which fortunately it had done. All the missionaries they had employed in foreign parts, all the preachers they had sent out to Hindostan, contradicted the correctness of this position. Those persons were sent abroad to expose the follies and absurdities of religious creeds which were reverenced by millions. They declared their dissent from those supersti

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »