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THE RIGHT OF PRIVATE JUDGMENT IN RELIGION.
THESE were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily,
whether those things were so.-ACTs, xvii. 11.
The primitive preachers of the gospel considered their hearers as capable of judging of the truth of what they heard. They not only taught the truth, but exhibited clear and conclusive evidence to support what they taught. This appears to have been Paul's practice, from the two first verses of this chapter, in which it is said that Paul, as his manner was, went into the synagogue of the Jews, and three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures. But though he preached the gospel in this fair and candid manner, yet some were highly displeased and violently opposed him; which constrained him to leave Thessalonica and go to Berea, where he met with a kind and candid reception. The people there heard him with avidity and candor. Their minds were open to divine truth; and, so far as they understood it, they received it in love. And this fair, candid disposition led them not to place an implicit faith in the preacher, but to search the scriptures, the only infallible standard of truth, to see whether the doctrines he delivered were really contained in the word of God. And this was so far from displeasing the apostle, that he highly commended them for it, in the text. 6 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” This conduct of the Bereans in exercising their right of private judgment in forming their religious sentiments, was agreeable to common sense, and sanctioned by divine authority. We may therefore justly draw this general conclusion from it:
That men ought to exercise the right of private judgment in forming their religious sentiments.
I shall first show what it is to exercise the right of private judgment; and then show that men ought to exercise it in forming their religious sentiments.
I. Let us consider what it is to exercise the right of private judgment in forming our religious sentiments.
It is the right which every man has of seeing with his own eyes, hearing with his own ears, and of exercising his own reason, in forming his religious opinions. When any man, without any compulsion or restraint, freely exercises his own natural abilities in forming his sentiments, he exercises all the right of private judgment that he can have or enjoy. But this implies several things. In particular,
1. A right to hear what may be said upon the subject to be decided. Men are often unprepared to form their judgment upon a subject without collecting information from others. We have a right to hear what may be said upon a subject proposed to our approbation or belief, before we either receive or reject it. The Bereans had a right to hear the reasons the apostle had to offer in favor of Christianity, before they either received it as true, or rejected it as false. And this was proper, in order to form a just opinion of what he declared to be a revelation from heaven. We have a right to collect evidence upon any subject, from any who are able to give us information about it. And in many cases, before we have gained such information we are not duly prepared to form a decisive opinion. The more information men can collect from others in any case, the better they are prepared to judge correctly and form an opinion according to truth. Private judgment does not reject, but
. rightly improves all the light and information obtained from others.
2. This right implies a right to examine every subject for ourselves, and employ all our rational powers in investigating the truth. Though many things may have been said, and many volumes may have been written upon any religious doctrine, yet we have a right to think and reason upon it ourselves, and to search the scriptures, to see whether it be there revealed or not. After the Bereans had heard Paul preach and reason out of the scriptures, they had a right to reason and search the scriptures for themselves, and to gain more light, if they could, than the apostle had exhibited. The greatest and best of uninspired men are liable to err. And therefore we are to use our own reason and knowledge in connection with theirs, in forming our religious opinions. When we come to think seriously and accurately upon a subject which others have treated with great confidence, we may find good reasons to differ from them in opinion. They may have overlooked, and we may have found the real truth in the case. The right of collecting evidence, and of weighing it when collected, is necessarily involved in the right of private judgment. Nor can we properly judge for ourselves, unless we examine for ourselves. After we have read and conversed upon a difficult religious subject, we ought to think and read the Bible, in order to unite with, or differ from others in opinion. This is the most essential and important branch of the right of private judgment. This is what others often wish to abridge us of, and what we are too apt to give up, or abuse. I may add,
3. The right of private judgment involves the right of forming our opinions according to the best light we can obtain. After a man knows what others have said or written, and after he has thought and searched the scriptures upon any religious subject, he has a right to form his own judgment exactly according to evidence. He has no right to exercise prejudice, or partiality; but he has a right to exercise impartiality, in spite of all the world. After all the evidence is collected from every quarter, then it is the proper business of the understanding, or judgment, to compare and balance evidence, and to form a decisive opinion or belief, according to apparent truth. We have no more right to judge without evidence, than we have to judge contrary to evidence; and we have no more right to doubt without, or contrary to evidence, than we have to believe without, or contrary to evidence. We have no right to keep ourselves in a state of doubt or uncertainty, when we have sufficient evidence to come to a decision. The command is, “ Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” The meaning is, examine all things; and after examination, decide what is right. Having briefly described the right of private judgment, I proceed,
II. To show that men ought to exercise it in forming their religious sentiments. And this will appear, if we consider,
1. That God has made men capable of judging for them. selves in matters of religion. He has made them wiser than the beasts of the field and the fowls of heaven; and his inspiration has given them understanding. He has given them not only the powers of perception, volition and memory, which are common to the lower species, but he has also endued them with the higher powers of reason and conscience, by which they are capable of judging what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. Men are moral agents. They are capable of acting in the view of moral motives. And this enaVOL. IV.
bles them to judge for themselves, in the great and serious concerns of religion, as well as in the common affairs of life. As they are capable of judging for themselves and forming their own religious sentiments, so it is their duty to do it. Their capacity creates their obligation, which they cannot dissolve so long as their capacity remains. As they are rational creatures, they are bound to act rationally. This, indeed, is the only power which they have no right ever to resign. They may, when necessary, give up their property, or civil liberty; but they may never give up their right of forming their own religious sentiments, and of serving God according to the dictates of their conscience. This is a right in its own nature inalienable ; and since they cannot give it away, they cannot neglect to use it, without injuring both God and themselves. When the great and essential doctrines of the gospel are preached to them, they are obliged to judge of them according to the best evidence they are able to obtain, both from others, and from their own serious and impartial examination. They have no right to let their own depraved hearts, or the false reasonings of others, warp their understanding, and obscure the real evidence of divine truth which is to be seen in the Bible. But they are bound to exercise their own rational powers impartially, in searching the scriptures and other sources of information, in forming their religious sentiments, which may have a powerful influence upon their religious conduct and future state.
2. God has given men not only the proper powers, but the proper means of forming their own religious sentiments. The Bible, which he has put into their hands, contains sufficient information in regard to all the principal doctrines and duties of religion. God has revealed all the great truths which are necessary to be known and believed in order to salvation, with great plainness. The scriptures of truth are level to every one's capacity, so that way-faring men though fools cannot err therein, unless by prejudice, partiality, or blindness of heart. By seriously and attentively searching the scriptures, men of all ages, of all characters, of all professions, and of all capacities, may discover the truth respecting all sentiments or doctrines which are delivered to them by their teachers, or suggested and propagated by others. When the apostles went forth among Jews and Gentiles, they carried the scriptures with them, from which they professed to derive their sentiments, and to which they appealed for the truth of them. Just so it is now in the christian protestant world; all who claim the character of christian instructers, profess to preach the doctrines which are contained in that sacred volume, which is in every one's hands. They profess to reason out of the scriptures; and appeal to them for the support of all the doctrines and duties which they inculcate. Those, therefore, who have the Bible in their hands, have ample means of information upon all religious subjects. They may, as the apostle directs, “ try the spirits," or examine the doctrines which any religious teachers bring to them as divinely revealed truths. And since they have this ample source of information in their hands, they cannot, without great impropriety and danger, neglect to search the scriptures, and to employ their own noble, rational powers, in forming their own religious sentiments. Had they no such means as God has given, to come to the knowledge of the truth, they might almost despair of finding it, amidst the great variety and contrariety of religious opinions which are advanced and propagated in the world. But so long as they hold the Bible in their hands and in their own language, they have an infallible standard, by which they may try and determine the truth or falsehood of all the doctrines which are delivered by their teachers, or propagated by others. And this source of information renders them inexcusable, in neglecting to exercise their own private judgment in determining what is truth and what is error. Neither the confidence nor authority which any may display in propagating their sentiments, nor the specious reasons they may offer to support them, ought to lead men to neglect their own right to judge for themselves. They have the power and the means which God has given them, to know the truth ; and these they are bound to improve for the great purposes for which they are given. It is not only their privilege, but their duty, to exercise their private judgment in matters of religion, and to believe and disbelieve according to real evidence.
3. This is the duty of every man, because God has appointed none to judge for him in respect to his religious opinions. It is true, God has appointed teachers, but not judges. The preachers of the gospel are to explain and inculcate the doctrines of it, and place them in as clear, plain and convincing a light as they can. But after all they have done to exhibit and support the truth, the hearers are to judge for themselves whether those things they have heard be the truth. They have the same sure word of inspiration to assist them in determining what is truth, that their teachers have; and they are obliged to consult it. Teachers, indeed, have often been disposed to assume the power and authority of dictating. And the christian church has suffered great injury, for ages, from the bigotry and usurpation of those who have sustained the office of sacred guides. But it was not so from the beginning. The apostles and primitive preachers of the gospel disclaimed all dominion over men's faith, and professed to be only helpers in promoting