OUR PLACE IN THE WORLD AS DISSENTING CHRISTIANS: Letters to a Young Dissenter on the Principles of Nonconformity

Taken and adapted from, “Letters to a Young Dissenter, on the General Principles of Nonconformity: Containing Brief and Candid Remarks on Those Rites and Ceremonies in the Church of England, Which Appear Objectionable to the Numerous and Respectable Dissenters of the Present Day,” Letter XVI., Concluding Remarks.
Written by, T. Drummond, 1812

Priestley_Riots_painting

MY YOUNG FRIEND,

In the preceding Letters I have endeavored to state briefly the causes of dissent, without particularizing the differences of opinion relative to the doctrines of faith. Amongst the various denominations of Dissenters, some accord more than others with the doctrines of the Church of England, while they are in unison with the whole body of Dissenters respecting Church Government, and with regard to rites and ceremonies.

It is inconsistent with the fundamental principles of Dissenters to impose on others their own peculiar sentiments either respecting doctrines, or rites and ceremonies; it is equally inconsistent with the principles of Dissenters to sacrifice the rights of private judgment to the will of any man or body of men, civil or ecclesiastical, who may be disposed to exact implicit faith and obedience in matters of religion; –to his own master every one stands or falls, and one is their master, Jesus the Christ.

The name of Dissenter is a term of reproach in the estimation of many who are anxious to be accounted true friends to the Established Church. Nothing short of witnessing the fact could persuade us that men of property, men of leisure, men of ability, are willfully ignorant of the history and the constitution of their own Church, for which they vehemently contend, and totally uninquisitive respecting the principles of Dissenters whom they despise and revile. “Away with this fellow from the earth, it is not fit that he should live,” was an exclamation formerly used by a multitude who boasted that they had Abraham to their Father, who placed implicit confidence in their teachers and leaders; who were strenuous advocates for an adherence to things as they found them, although they knew not the dates of those customs which they revered for their antiquity, nor the reason of those practices which they observed merely in imitation of their predecessors.

“Are Dissenters are enemies of our holy religion?” Our religion is the religion of the State, and therefore Dissenters are the enemies of our Civil Government,” is the exclamation of many who boast that they have the Church for their Mother, who avow their belief without conviction, who subscribe without investigation, who qualify as a matter of form, although it is within the compass of the understanding of every schoolboy to perceive that the Reformation of the Church was not considered a perfect work in the first instance, that various changes were made in the progress of its improvement, until Queen Elizabeth said.

Thus far shall ye go, and no further. The charge of disaffection has been alleged against the Dissenters, like popular clamors in general, without the support of facts. The Parliament who commenced the civil war, the Judges who condemned Charles I., were of the Church of England; but many Presbyterian and Independent Ministers remonstrated against his execution; and both denominations were strenuous advocates for the restoration of his son Charles II.

The Dissenters were surpassed by no description, of their countrymen in zeal for William III., and for the House of Hanover ; and when in 1715 and 1745 rebellion assailed that house, they testified their attachment by arming in its defense, although their exertions rendered them liable to the penalties of the Test Act.

In the letters I have written to you, I have avoided contrasting our principles with those of the Roman Catholics; they are in this country to be ranked amongst Dissenters; and although in the exercise of the right of private judgment we differ from them, yet the same liberty we claim for ourselves we ought to wish extended to all religious denominations.

Whatever hierarchy enforces or induces the Legislature to enforce conformity adopts precisely the same measures to maintain Christianity that the Jews and Heathens employed to suppress it. We may consider Heathenism and Islam according to their deserts, and yet exercise Christian charity towards their adherents: we may be adverse to Popery, and yet be on friendly terms with Papists; we may object to some of the doctrines and the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England, and yet cultivate Christian love towards its members; we may exercise universal benevolence towards all mankind, without violence to our principles as Christians.

We may hold fast our integrity, though the calamities of fines, imprisonment, and death, be suspended over our heads; and while we are willing to allow to others a perfect freedom in the exercise of their religion, we consider ourselves entitled by every principle moral and divine to the free enjoyment of religious rights, which cannot interfere with the peace of civil society, and to a complete participation of civil rights, as members of the community and interested in its welfare.

It has been asserted that the Bill lately brought into Parliament ought to have been more cordially received by the Dissenters, as it was designed to promote the respectability of their Ministers. The Bill was obviously incompatible with the regular arrangements of the numerous class denominated Methodists, and it were no difficult task to prove its utter incompetence to produce any beneficial effects to other denominations. But even allowing the Bill all the efficacy attributed to it by its advocates, we must bear in mind, that in the time of the Apostles, when the Jews and the Heathens enjoyed all the power of human jurisdiction, and the First Christians were the Dissenters from the respective temples of each spiritual domination, Paul, anxious (as his epistles to Timothy and Titus prove him to have been) for the respectability of the Christian ministry, neither applied to the Sanhedrim of the Jews nor to the Roman Governors for a License; and the ‘upper room at Troas, in which Paul preached so long that Eutychus slept and fell down from the third loft, was in fact a Conventicle: this we infer from the Scriptures.

But Christianity, although so taught amongst the Jews and Heathens, may not be taught amongst professing Christians without a license for the building, a license for the preacher, and a stigmatizing mark of incapacity to serve in public offices on each of the attendants at any Dissenting place of worship. –How does this correspond with the practice recorded in Acts 5:42? No Dissenter presumes to officiate in the temples of the Establishment, but who can say that it is an unchristian practice to “teach and preach Jesus Christ” ” in every house.” (“The first Christians assembled for the purposes of divine worship in private houses, in caves and in vaults where the dead were buried.” –Mosheim, vol. 1, pg. 206.)

I cannot close this letter, the last that I shall have leisure to write to you at present, without remarking that I have scarcely noticed the Homilies, the Canons, the Articles, and the Kubrick, to all of which the Clergy of the Establishment are obliged to subscribe, and in all of which the Laity are presumed cordially to agree. The Homilies, although now perhaps out of season, are ordered to be read in churches, yet who reads them? The Canons are partially attended to; the Articles are diversely interpreted; and the Rubrick, which amongst other matters requires that every member of the Church of England should receive the Communion at least three times every year, is become obsolete. ” Hence in a variety of instances they who profess themselves members of the Established Church are in fact Dissenters; the Clergy are obligated to subscribe to these things, but who has ever known an individual that in the exercise of his function conformed to all that is implied by his subscription? Whilst under the standard of conformity the members of the Establishment dissent in numerous instances, and yet enjoy civil rights without restraint, we who in the name of non-conformity dissent in many other instances, although we are at least as consistent, labor under the terror of Penal Laws, and the reproaches of those who style themselves true sons of the Church.

With a sincere hope that, since every investigation tends to elicit truth, mankind will ultimately accord in the song of angels, Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and, good will towards men,

      I remain,

                 Yours, Etc.