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Now I conceive that one of the causes,—not the only, nor the principal cause,—but one of the causes of this community of feeling, has been the existence of religious rites. Certain forms, bearing the same name, have been observed by all, and observed because they were commanded by the same master. And it was, perhaps, one of the designs of our Saviour, when he instituted the ritual ordinances of our religion, to throw a chain round the whole body of his disciples, which, though its links were unseen, and its strength was unknown, would yet serve the purpose of binding them together.
The benefits which I have enumerated, as resulting from prescribed religious forms, are sufficient to prove them requisite, reasonable and useful. But all the considerations which have been offered are of a general nature. When we come to the inquiry of what kinds of forms are best, how many should there be, and how should they be observed, the discussion will of course assume a more particular bearing. It must be laid down as a principle, that religious rites, in order that they may produce the most beneficial effects, prevent abuses, and be in harmony with a pure and spiritual religion, must be simple and few. I hope to establish the truth of this proposition by the following considerations.
Observances are so far valuable as they produce good dispositions, and no farther. Whatever, therefore, tends to make them valued for themselves tends to destroy all that is valuable in their efficacy. And they are even negative and harmless, only so long as they do not absolutely exclude good dispositions, and no longer. That is to say; whatever there may be in them which diverts the attention from the objects to which they ought to have directed it; whatever there may be in the means, which takes away the thoughts and affections from the end, perverts the very design of those means, and renders them not only useless, but pervicious. Rites, therefore, should in the first place be simple; simple, both in their nature, and in the manner of observing them.
To this necessary simplicity two fatal enemies are opposed-mystery and splendour.
All the good effects which result from a simple manner of apprehending a religious ceremony are destroyed by mystery. To perform a rite, or to partake in it, with desirable effects on ourselves, we must understand what it means. We must have some knowledge of its object, before we can answer that object-at least if we have any thing to do with its operation; and if we have not, why engage in it at all? A mysterious ceremony is a waste of time, if it be not worse than a waste. It either overwhelms and stupifies the mind at the precise moment when the mind should have been unusually vigorous and active; or it absorbs those energies in barren astonishment, which ought to have been employed in practical reflection. A mysterious rite, as might be supposed, has some such influence as a magical spell, enchaining the best of the mental powers in an idle imprisonment, when they ought to be in pursuit of the worthiest achievements.
The necessary simplicity of religious rites is opposed likewise by splendour, which relates to the manner of performing them. Flaming altars, and bleeding victims, tapers, incense, and costly robes, are all but so many enticements to draw away the mind from
charity and duty. It has been said that they elevate the thoughts, and kindle a glow of devotion. It may
But what is the nature of the elevation and the glow? Is it the elevation which aspires after what is noble and useful in character? Is it the glow which warms the heart with benevolence, and sympathy, and love to man? Is it not rather an elevation bewildered in its own flight, and a glow exhausted in its own burning? These confused and tumultuous and undefinable sensations are profitless; they bring no good thing to pass. And if they stopped here it would be well. But they are not merely unproductive to the votary, they deceive him. They have a lie in their right hand. They say to his heart—it is enough. They permit him to depart from the service satisfied with himself, and thinking that the Deity is satisfied with what he has done-when he ought to have departed with a determination to do more than he has ever yet accomplished, and anxious to gain the divine
approbation by every moral exertion in his power. And even this is not the extent of the evil. He comes to the sacrifice, or the ceremony, with the mistaken idea that its forms will relieve him of a burthen of sin; and he goes away fatally convinced that they bave done so. And what follows? He feels himself at liberty to sin again, because he knows where to find a refuge for crime, however accumulated, and a remedy for guilt, however ag ravated.
There are, then, two evils which result from splendour in the rites of religion. The one is, that it engrosses those feelings which should have received a practical direction; and the other, that it is an in lucement to ascribe merit and power to what is arrayed with so much show and circumstance, and requires so much trouble and cost.
We have seen that religious rites should be simple, both in their nature, and in the manner of their celebration. That they may produce the good ends for which they are adapted, they should also be few in number. A multiplicity of rites will be followed by evil consequences very similar to those, which arise from their splendour, and their mystery. Attention, value, merit, influence, efficacy, are all taken away from the ends, and given up to the means. Religion is naturally made to consist in its external institutions, when they present themselves so often, that there is no opportunity for attending to any thing else. The mind has no alternative; it must devote itself to guests who make such constant calls. They who are disposed to do any thing in the service of religion, are never prone to blame themselves for doing too little, in any shape. They are very unwilling to suppose that any labour, of any kind, will be labour lost. Of course that labour will be preferred, which is attended with the least real difficulty. It is easier to prepare a pageant than it is to overcome a rebellious propensity. Men will rend their garments, but not their hearts; they will bow their knees, but not their pride; they will tear the flesh from their bodies, but not their bad passions from their souls. They are very ready with their altar service, lip service, eye service—any service, but the service of the heart and the life. These corporeal acts, they vainly imagine, entitle them to a moral equivalent. “Wherefore have we fasted,” say they, "and thou seest noti wherefore have we amicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledger” A natural deduction will be, that the more frequently, carefully, and expensively they are got up, the greater will be the claim for a spiritual return. He therefore who is hurried from a procession to a sacrifice, from a sacrifice to a lustration, and then to a feast and a fast, and then back again through the whole routine, is persuaded, and he must be persuaded, that he has surely done enough to please and propitiate heaven, and that these vain and empty observances are the substance and sum of religion. In truth he has neither time nor ability to extract any real improvement from ceremonies, which succeed each other so rapidly. The attention and the feelings are so often excited, that they are worn out by the excitement, and last no longer than the exciting cause. Even the false devotion, which rises upon
clouds of incense, and burns with the flame of the sacrifice, vanishes with the last wreath of the column, dies with the last ember on the altar. In short, they who never hear of religion, though they may hear of it every hour, except in connexion with a ceremony, are almost forced into the belief that ceremony is religion, and that religion is nothing but ceremony.
From the foregoing considerations may be drawn the most satisfactory inferences in favour of our own religion. In the first place it has its instituted rites. Thus are secured to it those general advantages, which were mentioned in the beginning of this essay. In the next place, these rites are both simple in nature, and few in number. Thus are the best effects of such institutions ensured, and their worst abuses prevented.
I am aware that this last is not a prevailing sentiment among Christians, and that many will contra