Project Canterbury

William Law's
Defence of Church Principles:
Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor, 1717-1719.

edited by J. O. Nash and Charles Gore.

[London: Griffith Farran and Co.] 
Transcribed by John D Lewis


[section one]




§ 1 |

    MY LORD,

    A JUST concern for truth and the first principles of the Christian religion, was the only motive, that engaged me in the examination of your Lordship’s doctrines in a former letter to your Lordship. And the same motive, I hope, will be thought a sufficient apology for my presuming to give your Lordship the trouble of a second letter.

    Amongst the vain contemptible things, whereof your Lordship would create an abhorrence in the laity, are, "the trifles and niceties of authoritative benedictions, absolutions, excommunications."1 Again, you say, that "to expect the grace of God from any hands, but His own, is to affront Him"—–.2 And, "that all depends upon God and ourselves; that human benedictions, human absolutions, human excommunications, have nothing to do with the favour of God."3

    It is evident from these maxims (for your Lordship asserts them as such) that whatever institutions are observed in any Christian society upon this supposition, that thereby grace is conferred through human hands, or by the ministry of the clergy, such institutions ought to be condemned, and are condemned by your Lordship, as "trifling, useless, and affronting to God."



Intro | § 2 |

§ I. Of Authoritative Benediction in

1. Confirmation.
2. Ordination of Clergy.
3. Consecration in

the Lord’s Supper.

The Bishop’s doctrine condemns the Apostles, their successors, the Church of England, and himself.

    § I.

1.  There is an institution, my Lord, in the yet Established Church of England, which we call Confirmation: it is founded upon the express words of Scripture, primitive observance, and the universal practice of all succeeding ages in the Church. The design of this institution is, that it should be a means of conferring grace, by the prayer and imposition of the bishop’s hands on those who have been already baptized. But yet against all this authority, both divine and human, and the express order of our own Church, your Lordship teaches the laity, "that all human benedictions are useless niceties; and that to expect God’s grace from any hands but His own, is to affront Him."

    If so, my Lord, what shall we say in defence of the Apostles? We read,4 that when Philip the deacon had baptized the Samaritans, the Apostles sent Peter and John to them, who having prayed, and "laid their hands on them, they received the Holy Ghost, who before was fallen upon none of them; only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus."

    My Lord, several things are here out of question; Firstly, that something else, even in the Apostolical times, was necessary, besides baptism, in order to qualify persons to become complete members of the Body, or partakers of the grace of Christ. They had been baptized, yet did not receive the Holy Ghost, till the Apostles’ hands were laid upon them. Secondly, That God’s graces are not only conferred by means of [82] human hands; but of some particular hands, and not others. Thirdly, That this office was so strictly appropriated to the Apostles or chief governors of the Church, that it could not be performed by inspired men, though empowered to work miracles, who were of an inferior order—as Philip the deacon. Fourthly, That the power of the Apostles for the performance of this ordinance, was entirely owing to their superior degree in the ministry, and not to any extraordinary gifts they were endowed with: for then Philip might have performed it, who was not wanting in those gifts, being himself an Evangelist, and worker of miracles: which is a demonstration that his incapacity arose from his inferior degree in the ministry.

    And now, my Lord, are all human benedictions niceties and trifles? Are the means of God’s grace in His own hands alone? Is it wicked, and affronting to God, to suppose the contrary? How then comes Peter and John to confer the Holy Ghost by the imposition of their hands? How comes it, that they appropriate this office to themselves? Is the dispensation of God’s grace in His own hands alone? And yet can it be dispensed to us by the ministry of some persons, and not by that of others?

    Were the Apostles so wicked, as to distinguish themselves by a pretence to vain powers, which God had reserved to Himself, and which your Lordship supposes from the title of your Preservative, that it is inconsistent with common-sense to imagine that God would or could have communicated to men?

    Had any of your Lordship’s well-instructed laity lived in the Apostles’ days, with what indignation must they have rejected this senseless chimerical claim of the Apostles? They must have said, ‘Why do you, Peter or John, pretend to this blasphemous power? Whilst [83] we believe the Gospel, we cannot expect the grace of God from any hands but His own. You give us the Holy Ghost! You confer the grace of God! Is it not impious to think, that He should make our improvement in grace depend upon your ministry; or hang our salvation upon any particular order of clergymen? We know, that "God is just, and good, and true," and that all depends upon Him and ourselves; and that human benedictions are trifles. Therefore, whether you Peter, or you Philip, or both, or neither of you lay your hands upon us, we are neither better nor worse but just in the same state of grace as we were before.’

    This representation, has not one syllable in it, but what is founded in your Lordship’s doctrine, and perfectly agreable to it.

    The late most pious and learned Bishop Beveridge has these remarkable words upon Confirmation: "How -my bishops in our age dare neglect so considerable a part of their office, I know not; but fear, they will have no good account to give of it, when they come to stand before God’s tribunal."5

    But we may justly, and therefore I hope with decency, ask your Lordship how you dare perform this part of your office? For you have condemned it as trifling and wicked; as trifling, because it is a human benediction; as wicked, because it supposes grace conferred by the hands of the Bishop. If therefore any baptized persons should come to your Lordship for Confirmation, if you are sincere in what you have delivered, your Lordship ought, I humbly conceive, to make them this declaration:

    "My friends, for the sake of decency and order, I have taken upon me the episcopal character; and, [84] according to custom, which has long prevailed against common-sense, am now to lay my hands upon you: but, I beseech you, as you have any regard to the truth of the Gospel or to the honour of God, not to imagine there is anything in this action, more than a useless empty ceremony: for if you expect to have any spiritual advantage from human benedictions, or to receive grace from the imposition of a bishop’s hands, you affront God, and in effect, renounce Christianity."

    Pray, my Lord, consider that passage in the Scripture, where the Apostle speaks of "leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, and going on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, of faith towards God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment."6

    My Lord, here it is undeniably plain, that this laying on of hands (which is with us called Confirmation) is so fundamental a part of Christ’s religion, that it is called one of the first principles of the doctrine of Christ and is placed amongst such primary truths, as the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.

    S. Cyprian, speaking of this Apostolical imposition of hands, says: "The same is now practised with us; they who have been baptized in the Church are brought to the presidents of the Church, that by our prayer and imposition of hands, they may receive the Holy Ghost, and be consummated with the Lord’s seal."7

    And must we yet believe that all human benedictions are dreams, and the imposition of human hands trifling and useless; and that to expect God’s graces from them, is to affront Him: though the Scriptures expressly teach us, that God confers His grace by means [85] of certain particular human hands, and not of others though they tell us, this human benediction, this laying on of hands, is one of the first principles of the religion of Christ, and as much a foundation doctrine as the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment; and though every age since that of the Apostles, has strictly observed it as such, and the authority of our own Church still requires the observance of it?

    2.  I come now, my Lord, to another sacred and divine institution of Christ’s Church, which stands exposed and condemned by your Lordship’s doctrine; and that is, the Ordination of the Christian clergy; where, by means of a human benediction and the imposition of the Bishop’s hands, the Holy Ghost is supposed to be conferred on persons towards consecrating them for the work of the ministry.

    We find it constantly taught by the Scriptures, that all ecclesiastical authority, and the graces whereby the clergy are qualified and enabled to exercise their functions to the benefit of the Church, are the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Apostle exhorts the elders "to take heed unto the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made them overseers."8 But how, my Lord, had the Holy Ghost made them overseers, but by the laying on of the Apostles’ hands? They were not immediately called by the Holy Ghost; but being consecrated by such human hands as had been authorised to that purpose, they were as truly called by Him, and sanctified with grace for that employment, as if they had received an immediate or miraculous commission. So again, S. Paul puts Timothy in mind "to stir up the gift of God that was in him, by laying on of his hands."9

    And now, my Lord, if human benedictions be such [86] idle dreams and trifles; if it be affronting to God, to expect His graces from them, or through human hands; do we not plainly, want new Scriptures? Must we not give up the Apostles as furious high-church prelates, who aspired to presumptuous claims, and talked of conferring the graces of God by, their own hands? Was not this doctrine as strange and unaccountable then, as at present? Was it not as inconsistent with the attributes and sovereignty of God at that time, to have His graces pass through other hands than His own, as in any succeeding age? Nay, my Lord, where shall we find any Fathers or councils, in the primitive Church, but who owned and asserted these powers? They that were so ready to part with their lives rather than do the least dishonour to God or the Christian name, yet were all guilty of this horrid blasphemy, in imagining that they were to bless in God’s name; and that by the benediction and laying on of the bishop’s hands, the graces of the Holy Ghost could be conferred on any persons.

    Agreeable to the sense of Scripture and antiquity, our Church uses this form of Ordination: "The Bishop laying his hands on the person’s head, says, Receive the Holy Ghost, for the office and work of a priest in the Church of God, committed unto thee, by the imposition of our hands." From this form, it is plain—Firstly, that our Church holds that the reception of the Holy Ghost is necessary to constitute a person a Christian priest. Secondly, That the Holy Ghost is conferred through human hands. Thirdly, That it is by the brands of a Bishop that the Holy Ghost is conferred.

    If therefore your Lordship is right in your doctrine, the Church of England is evidently most corrupt. For if it be dishonourable and affronting to God, to expect His grace from any human hands, it must of necessity [87] be dishonourable and affronting to Him, for a Bishop to pretend to confer it by his hands. And can that Church be any ways defended that has established such an iniquity by law, and made the form of it so necessary? How can your Lordship answer it to your laity, for taking the character or power of a Bishop from such a form of words? You tell them, it is affronting to God, to expect His grace from human hands; yet to qualify yourself for a bishopric, you let human hands be laid on you, after a manner which directly supposes you thereby receive the Holy Ghost! Is it wicked in them to expect it from human hands? And is it less so in your Lordship, to pretend to receive it from human hands? He that believes it is affronting to God to expect His grace from human hands, must likewise believe that our form of Ordination, which promises the Holy Ghost by the bishop’s hands, must be also affronting to God. Certainly, he cannot be said to be very jealous of the honour of God, who will submit himself to be made a Bishop by a form of words derogatory, upon his own principles, to God’s honour.

    Suppose your Lordship was to have been consecrated to the office of a Bishop by these words, "Take thou power to sustain all things in being, given thee by my hands." I suppose, your Lordship would think it entirely unlawful to submit to the form of such an Ordination. But, my Lord, "Receive thou the Holy Ghost," &c., is as impious a form, according to your Lordship’s doctrine, and equally injurious to the Eternal Power and Godhead, as the other. For if the grace of God can only be had from His own hands, would it not be as innocent in the Bishop to say, "Receive thou power to sustain all things in being," as to say, "Receive the Holy Ghost by the imposition of my hands"? And would not a compliance with either [88] form be equally unlawful? According to your doctrine, in each of them God’s prerogative is equally invaded; and therefore the guilt must be the same.

    It may also well be wondered, how your Lordship can accept of a character, which is, or ought to be chiefly distinguished by the exercise of that power which you disclaim, as in the offices of Confirmation and Ordination. For, my Lord, where can be the sincerity of saying, "Receive the Holy Ghost by the imposition of our hands," when you declare it affronting to God, to expect it from any hands but His own? Suppose your Lordship h ad been preaching to the laity against owning any authority in the Virgin Mary; and yet should acquiesce in the conditions of being made a Bishop in her name, and by recognising her power: could such a submission be consistent with sincerity? Here you forbid the laity to expect God’s grace from any hands but His; yet not only accept of an office, upon supposition of the contrary doctrine; but oblige yourself, according to the sense of the Church wherein you are ordained a Bishop, to act frequently in direct opposition to your own principles.

    So that, I think, it is undeniably plain, that you have at once, my, Lord, by these doctrines condemned the Scriptures, the Apostles, their martyred successors, the Church of England, and your own conduct; and have hereby given us some reason (though I wish there were no occasion to mention it) to suspect, whether you, who allow of no other Church but what is founded in sincerity, are yourself really a member of any Church.

    3.  I shall now proceed to say something upon the consecration of the Lord’s Supper, which is as much exposed as a trifle, by your Lordship’s doctrine, as the other institutions. S. Paul says, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood [89] of Christ?"10 My Lord, is not this cup still to be blessed? Must there not therefore be such a thing as a human benediction? And are human benedictions to be all despised, though by them the bread and wine become means of grace, and are made the spiritual nourishment of our souls? Can any one bless this cup? If not, then there is a difference between human benedictions: some are authorised by God, and their blessing is effectual, whilst others, only are vain and presumptuous. If the prayer over the elements, and the consecration, be only a trifle and a dream, and it be offensive to God to expect they are converted into means of grace by a human benediction, why then did S. Paul pretend to bless them? Why did he make it the privilege of the Church? Or, why do we keep up the same solemnity? But if it be to be blessed only by God’s ministers, then how can your Lordship answer it to God for ridiculing and abusing human benedictions, and telling the world, that a particular order of the clergy are not of any necessity, nor can be of any advantage to them. For if the Sacrament can only be blessed by God’s ministers, then such ministers are as necessary as the sacraments themselves.

    S. Paul says, the cup must be blessed: if you say any one may bless it, then, though you contemn the benedictions of the clergy, you allow of them by everybody else: if everybody cannot bless it, then, you must confess, that the benedictions of some persons are effectual, where others are not.



§ I | § III |

§ II. Scripture evidence for a human ministry shows that it has always been God’s ordinary method to dispense His blessings and judgements by the hands of men. At the same time, He has gives the clergy no arbitrary powers.

    § II.  

My Lord, the great sin against the Holy Ghost was the denial of His operation in the ministry of our Saviour. And how near does your Lordship come to it, in denying the operation of that same Spirit in the ministers whom Christ hath sent? They are employed in the same work that He was. He left His authority with them; and promised, that the Holy Spirit should remain with them to the end of the world; that whatsoever they should bind on earth, should be bound in heaven; and whatsoever they should loose on earth, should be loosed in heaven; that whosoever despises them, despises Him, and Him that sent Him. And yet your Lordship tells us, we need not to trouble our heads about any particular sort of clergy; that all is to be transacted between God and ourselves; that human benedictions are insignificant trifles.

    But pray, what proof has your Lordship for all this? Have you any Scripture for it? Has God anywhere declared, that no men on earth have any authority to bless in His name? Has He anywhere said that it is a wicked, presumptuous thing for anyone to pretend to it? Has He anywhere told us, that it is inconsistent with His honour, to bestow His graces by human hands? Has He anywhere told us, that he has no ministers, no ambassadors on earth; but that all His gifts and graces are to be received immediately from His own hands? Have you any antiquity, Fathers, or councils on your side? No. The whole tenor of Scripture, the whole current of tradition is against you. Your novel doctrine has only this to recommend it to the libertines of the age, who universally give into it, that it never was the [91] opinion of any church or any churchman. It is your Lordship’s proper assertion, "That we offend God in expecting His graces from any hands but His own."

    Now, it is strange that God should be offended with His own methods; or that your Lordship should find us out a way of pleasing Him, more suitable to His nature and attributes than what He has taught us in the Scriptures. I call them His own methods: for what else is the whole Jewish dispensation, but a method of God’s providence, where His blessings and judgments were dispensed by human hands? What is the Christian religion, but a method of salvation, where the chief means of grace are offered and dispensed by human hands? Let me here recommend to your Lordship the excellent words of a very learned and judicious prelate on this occasion—

    "This will have no weight with any reasonable man, against the censures of the Church, or any other ordinance of the Gospel, that they make the intervention of other men necessary to our salvation; since it has always been God’s ordinary method, to dispense His blessings and judgments by the hands of men."11

    Your Lordship exclaims against your adversaries, as such romantic strange sort of men, for talking of benedictions and absolutions, and of the necessity of receiving God’s ordinances from proper hands: yet, my Lord, here is an excellent bishop, against whose learning, judgment, and Protestantism, there can be no objection; who says, if a person have but the use of his reason, he will have nothing to object to any ordinances of the Gospel, which make the intervention of other men necessary towards the conveyance of them, since that has always been God’s ordinary method. The bishop does not say it is necessary, a man should be a [92] great divine to acknowledge it; so he be but a reasonable man, he will allow it. Yet your Lordship is so far from being this reasonable man, that you think your adversaries void both of reason and common-sense for teaching it. You expressly exclude all persons from having anything to do with our salvation, and say it wholly depends upon God and ourselves.

    You tell us, that "authoritative benediction is another of the terms of art used by your Protestant adversaries, in which they claim a right, in one regular succession, of blessing the people."12 An ingenious author, my Lord (in the opinion of many, if not of most of your friends), calls the consecration of the elements conjuration;13 your Lordship calls the sacerdotal benediction "a term of art"; too plain an intimation, though in more remote and somewhat softer terms, that in the sense of a certain Father of the Church, her clergy are little better than so many jugglers.

    Your Lordship says, "If they only meant hereby to declare upon what terms God will give His blessings to Christians, or to express their own hearty wishes for them, this might be understood." So it might, my Lord, very easily; and, I suppose, everybody understands that they may do this, whether they be clergy or laity, men or women: for I presume anyone may declare what he takes to be the terms of the Gospel, and wish that others may faithfully observe them. But I humbly presume, my Lord, that the good bishop above mentioned, meant something more than this, when he spoke of ordinances, which make the intervention of other men necessary to our salvation, and of God’s dispensing His blessings in virtue of them through their hands.


    There is a superstitious custom (in your Lordship’s account it must be so) yet remaining in most places, of sending for a clergyman to minister to sick persons in imminent danger of death: even those who have abused the clergy all their lives long, are glad to beg their assistance when they apprehend themselves upon the confines of another world. There is no reason, my Lord, to dislike this practice, but as it supposes a difference between the sacerdotal prayers and benedictions, and those of a nurse.

    We read, my Lord, that God would not heal Abimelech, though He knew the integrity of his heart, till Abraham had prayed for him. "He is a prophet," said God, "he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live."14

    Pray, my Lord, was not God "just, and good, and true," in the days of Abraham, as He is now? Yet you see, Abimelech’s integrity was not available itself. He was to be pardoned by the prayer of Abraham, and his prayer was effectual, and so represented, because it was the prayer of a prophet.

    Suppose, my, Lord, that Abimelech had said with your Lordship, "That it is affronting to God, that we should expect His graces from any hands but His own; that all is to be transacted between God and ourselves;" and so had rejected the prayer of Abraham, as a mere essay of prophet-craft; he had then acted with as much prudence and piety as your Lordship’s laity would do, if you could persuade them to despise benedictions and absolutions, to regard no particular sort of clergy, but entirely depend upon God and themselves, without any other assistance whatever.

    We read also, that "Joshua was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him."15 Was it not as absurd, my Lord, in the days of Joshua, [94] for human hands to bless, as it is now? Did there not then lie the same objection against Moses, that there does now against the Christian clergy? Had Moses any more natural power to give the spirit of wisdom, &c., by his hands, than the clergy have to confer grace by theirs? They are both equally weak and insufficient for these purposes, of themselves, and equally powerful when it pleases God to made them so.

    Again, when Eliphaz and his friends had displeased God, they were not to be reconciled to God by their own repentance, or transact that matter only betwixt God and themselves; but they were referred to apply to Job. "My servant Job shall pray for you; for him will I accept."16 Might not Eliphaz here have said, ‘Shall I so far affront God as to think I cannot be blessed without the prayers of Job? Shall I be so weak or senseless, as to imagine my own supplications and repentance will not save me; or that I need apply to anyone but God alone, to qualify me for the reception of His grace?’

    Again, "The Lord spake unto Moses, saying, speak unto Aaron and his sons, saying, on this wise shall ye bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, the Lord bless and keep thee, &c., and I will bless them."17

    Again, "The priests of the sons of Levi shall come near; for them hath the Lord thy God chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the Lord."18

    Now, my Lord, this is what we mean by the authoritative administrations of the Christian clergy; whether they be by way of benediction or of any other kind. We take them to be persons whom God has chosen to minister unto Him, and to bless in His name. We imagine that our Saviour was a greater priest and [95] mediator than Aaron, or any of God’s former ministers. We are assured that Christ sent His Apostles, as His Father had sent Him;19 and that therefore they were His true successors. And since they did commission others to succeed them in their office, by the imposition of hands, as Moses commissioned Joshua to succeed him, the clergy who have succeeded the Apostles have as divine a call and commission to their work, as those who were called by our Saviour; and are as truly His successors as the Apostles themselves were.

    From the places of Scripture above mentioned, it is evident, and indeed from the whole tenor of Sacred Writ, that it may consist with the goodness and justice of God to depute men to act in His name, and be ministerial towards the salvation of others; and to lay a necessity upon His creatures of qualifying themselves for His favour and receiving His graces, by the hands and intervention of mere men.

    But, my Lord, if there be any set of men upon earth that are more peculiarly God’s ministers than others, and through whose administrations, prayers, and benedictions, God will accept of returning sinners, and receive them to grace; you have done all you can, to prejudice people against them: you have taught the laity that all is to be transacted between God and themselves, and that they need not value any particular sort of clergy in the world.

    I leave it to the Great judge and Searcher of Hearts, to judge, from what principles, or upon what motives, your Lordship has been induced to teach these things but must declare, that for my own part, if I had the greatest hatred to Christianity, I should think it could not be more expressed than by teaching what your [96] Lordship has publicly taught. If I could rejoice in the misery and ruin of sinners, I should think it sufficient matter of triumph, to drive them from the ministers of God, and to put them upon inventing new schemes of saving themselves, instead of submitting to the ordinary methods of salvation appointed by God.

    It will not follow from anything I have said, that the laity have lost their Christian liberty; or that nobody can be saved but whom the clergy please to save; that they have the arbitrary disposal of happiness to mankind. Was Abimelech’s happiness in the disposition of Abraham, because he was to be received by means of Abraham’s intercession? Or could Job damn Eliphaz, because he was to mediate for him and procure his reconciliation to God?

    Neither, my Lord, do the Christian clergy pretend to this despotic empire over their flocks. They do not assume to themselves a power to damn the innocent, or to save the guilty; but they assert a sober and just right to reconcile men to God, and to act in His name in restoring them to His favour. They received their commission from those whom Christ sent with full authority to send others, and with a promise that He would be with them to the end of the world.20 From this they conclude, that they have His authority; and that in consequence of it, their administrations are necessary, and effectual to the salvation of mankind and that none can despise them, but who despise Him that sent them;21 and are as surely out of the covenant of grace when they leave such, His pastors, as when they openly despise or omit to receive His sacraments.

    And what is there in this doctrine, my Lord, to terrify the consciences of the laity? What is there here, to bring the profane scandal of priestcraft upon [97] the clergy? Could it be any ground of Abimelech’s hating Abraham, because that Abraham was to reconcile him to God? Could Eliphaz justly have any prejudice against Job, because God would hear Job’s intercession for him? Why then, my Lord, must the Christian priesthood be so horrid and hateful an institution, because the design of it is to restore men to the grace and favour of God? Why must we be so abused and insulted, for being sent upon the errand of salvation, and made ministers of eternal happiness to our brethren? There is a woe due to us if we preach not the Gospel; or neglect those ministerial offices that Christ has entrusted to us. We are to watch for their souls, as those who are to give an account. Why then must we be treated as arrogant priests or popishly affected, for pretending to have anything to do, in the discharge of our ministry, with the salvation of men? Why must we be reproached with blasphemous claims and absurd senseless powers, for assuming to bless in God’s name, or thinking our administrations more effectual than the office of a common layman?


| § II | § IV |

§ III. Objection ‘that the clergy are subject to the common frailties of mankind.

Ans. It is to God’s Glory that the treasure is in earthen vessels. If natural frailty incapacitate for being a channel of grace, then the sacraments and all positive Christian institutions fall. But if inanimate things can convey grace, much more can men.

    § III.  

But further, to what purpose does your Lordship except against these powers in the clergy, from their common frailties and infirmities with the rest of mankind?22 Was not Abraham, and job, and the Jewish priests, men of like passions with us? Did not our Saviour command the Jews to apply to their priests, [98] notwithstanding their personal faults; because they sat in Moses’ chair? Did not the Apostles assure their followers, that they were men of like passions with them? But did they therefore disclaim their mission, or Apostolical authority? Did they teach, that their natural infirmities made them less the ministers of God, or less necessary to the salvation of men? Their personal defects did not make them depart from the claim of those powers they were invested with; or desert their ministry: but indeed, gave S. Paul occasion to say, "We have this treasure in earthen vessels (ie., this authority committed to mere men) that the excellency of it may be of God, and not of men."23 The Apostle happens to differ very much from your Lordship. He says, ‘Such weak instruments were made use of, that the glory might redound to God:’ your Lordship says, ‘To suppose such instruments to be of any benefit to us, is to lessen the sovereignty of God, and in consequence, His glory.’

    Your Lordship imagines you have sufficiently destroyed the sacerdotal powers, by showing, that the clergy are only men, and subject to the common frailties of mankind. My Lord, we own the charge, and do not claim any sacerdotal powers from our personal abilities, or to acquire any glory to ourselves. But, weak as we are, we are God’s ministers; and if we are either afraid or ashamed of our duty, we must perish in the guilt. But is a prophet therefore proud, because he insists upon the authority of his mission? Cannot a mortal be God’s messenger, and employed in His affairs, but he must be insolent and assuming, for having the resolution to own it? If we are to be reproved, for pretending to be God’s ministers, because we are but men, the reproach will fall upon Providence; since it has pleased [99] God chiefly to transact His affairs with mankind by the ministry of their brethren.

    Your Lordship has not one word from Scripture against these sacerdotal powers; no proof, that Christ has not sent men to be effectual administrators of His graces: you only assert, that there can be no such Ministers, because they are mere men.

    Now, my Lord, I must beg leave to say, that if the natural weakness of men makes them incapable of being the instrument of conveying grace to their brethren; if the clergy cannot be of any use or necessity to their flocks, for this reason; then it undeniably follows, that there can be no positive institutions in the Christian religion, that can procure any spiritual advantages to the members of it; then the sacraments can be no longer any means of grace. For, I hope, no one thinks, that bread and wine have any natural force or efficacy to convey grace to the soul. The water in baptism has the common qualities of water, and is destitute of any intrinsic power to cleanse the soul, or purify from sin. But your Lordship will not say, because it has only the common nature of water, that therefore it cannot be a means of grace. Why then may not the clergy though they have the common nature of men, be constituted by God to convey His graces, and to be ministerial to the salvation of their brethren? Can God consecrate inanimate things to spiritual purposes, and make them the means of eternal happiness? And is man the only creature that He cannot make subservient to His designs, the only being who is too weak for an omnipotent God to render effectual towards attaining the ends of his grace?

    Is it just and reasonable, to reject and despise the ministry and benedictions of men, because they are men [100] like ourselves? And is it not as reasonable, to despise the sprinkling of water, a creature below us, a senseless and inanimate creature?

    Your Lordship therefore, must either find us some other reason for rejecting the necessity of human administrations, than because they are human; or else give up the sacraments, and all positive institutions along with them.

    Surely, your Lordship must have a mighty opinion of Naaman the Syrian; who, when the prophet bid him go wash in Jordan seven times, to the end he might be clean from his leprosy, very wisely remonstrated, "Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?"24

    This, my Lord, discovered Naaman’s great liberty of mind; and it is much that this has not been produced before, as an argument of his being a freethinker. He took the water of Jordan to be only water; as your Lordship justly observes a clergyman to be only a man: and if you had been with him, you could have informed him that the washing seven times was a mere nicety and trifle of the prophet; and that since it is God alone who can work miraculous cures, we ought not to think, that they depend upon any external means, or any stated number of repeating them.

    This, my Lord, is the true scope and spirit of your argument: If the Syrian was right in despising the water of Jordan, because it was only water; your Lordship may be right in despising any particular order of clergy; because they are but men. Your Lordship is, certainly, as right or as wrong as he was.

    And now, my Lord, let the common-sense of mankind here judge whether, if the clergy are to be esteemed as having no authority, because they are [101] mere men; it does not plainly follow that everything else, every institution that has not some natural force and power to produce the effects designed by it, is not also to be rejected as equally trifling and ineffectual.

    The sum of the matter is this: It appears from many express facts, and indeed, from the whole series of God’s providence, that it is not only consistent with His attributes, but also agreable to His ordinary methods of dealing with mankind, that He should substitute men to act in His name, and be authoritatively employed in conferring His graces and favours upon mankind. It appears that your Lordship’s argument against the authoritative administrations of the Christian clergy, does not only contradict those facts, and condemn the ordinary method of God’s dispensation; but likewise proves the sacraments, and every positive institution of Christianity, to be ineffectual, and as mere dreams and trifles as the several offices and orders of the clergy.

    This, I hope, will be esteemed a sufficient confutation of your Lordship’s doctrine, by all who have any true regard or zeal for the Christian religion, and only expect to be saved by the methods of divine grace proposed in the Gospel.

| § III | § V |

§ IV. Ecclesiastical character is sacred because derived from the Holy Ghost. It was He who consecrated the Saviour, and instituted the order of clergy. The Sacraments and the Scriptures stand only by the same authority; therefore we could as well make new sacraments, or a new Bible, as a new priesthood. The order of the clergy is of as necessary obligation as the sacraments, and as unalterable as the Holy Scriptures.

§ IV.  

I shall now in a word or two set forth the sacredness of the ecclesiastical character, as it is founded in the New Testament; with a particular regard to the power of conferring grace, and the efficacy of human benedictions.


    It appears therein, that all sacerdotal power is derived from the Holy Ghost. Our Saviour Himself took not the ministry upon Him till He had His consecration and during the time of His ministry He was under the guidance and direction of the Holy Ghost. Through the Holy Spirit He gave commandment to the Apostles whom He had chosen. When He ordained them to the world of the ministry, it was with these words, "Receive the Holy Ghost."25 Those whom the Apostles ordained to the same function it was by the same authority: they laid their hands upon the elders, exhorting them to take care of the flock of Christ, over which the Holy Ghost had made thcm overseers.

    Hereby they plainly declared that however this office was to descend from man to man through human hands, that it was the Holy Ghost which consecrated them to that employment, and gave them authority to execute it.

    From this it is also manifest, that the priesthood is a grace of the Holy Ghost; that it is not a function founded in the natural or civil rights of mankind; but is derived from the special authority of the Holy Ghost; and is as truly a positive institution as the sacraments. So that they who have no authority to alter the old sacraments and substitute new ones, have no power to alter the old Order of the clergy, or introduce any other Order of them.

    For why can we not change the sacraments? Is it not, because they arc only sacraments, and operate as they are instituted by the Holy Ghost? Because they are useless, ineffectual rites without His authority? And does not the same reason hold as well for the Order of the clergy? Does not the same Scripture tell us, they are equally instituted by the Holy Ghost, and oblige [103] only by virtue of His authority? How absurd is it therefore, to pretend to abolish, or depart from the settled Order of the clergy, to make new orders, and think any God’s ministers, unless we had His authority and could make new sacraments or a new religion?

    My Lord, how comes it that we cannot alter the Scriptures? Is it not because they are divinely inspired, and dictated by the Holy Ghost? And since it is express Scripture, that the priesthood is instituted and authorised by the same Holy Spirit, why is not the holy Ghost as much to be regarded in one institution, as in another? Why may we not as well make a Gospel, and say it was written by the Holy Ghost, as make a new Order of clergy, and call them His, or esteem them as having any relation to Him?

    From this it likewise appears, that there is an absolute necessity of a strict succession of authorised ordainers, from the Apostolical times, in order to constitute a Christian priest. For since a commission from the Holy Ghost is necessary for the exercise of this office, no one can now receive it, but from those who have derived their authority in a true succession from the Apostles. We could not, my Lord, call our present Bibles the Word of God, unless we knew the copies from which they are taken, were taken from other true ones, till we come to the originals themselves. No more could we call any true ministers, or authorised by the Holy Ghost, who have not received their commission by an uninterrupted succession of lawful ordainers.

    What an excellent divine would he be, who should tell the world, it was not necessary that the several copies and manuscripts, through which the Scriptures have been transmitted through different ages and languages, should be all true ones and none of them [104] forged; that "this was a thing subject to so great uncertainty, that God could not hang our salvation on such niceties." Suppose, for proof of this, he should appeal to the Scriptures, and ask, where any mention is made of ascertaining the truth of all the copies? Would not this be a way of arguing very theological? The application is very easy.

    Your Lordship has not one word to prove the uninterrupted succession of the clergy a trifle or dream; but that it is subject to so great uncertainty, and is never mentioned in the Scriptures. As to the uncertainty of it, it is equally as uncertain, as whether the Scriptures be genuine. There is just the same sufficient historical evidence for the certainty of one, as the other. As to its not being mentioned in the Scripture, the doctrine upon which it is founded plainly made it unnecessary to mention it. Is it needful for the Scriptures to tell us, that if we take our Bible from any false copy, that it is not the Word of God? Why then need they tell us, that if we are ordained by usurping false pretenders to ordination, not deriving their authority to that end from the Apostles, that we are no priests? Does not the thing itself speak as plain in one case, as in the other? The Scriptures are only of use to us, as they are the Word of God: we cannot have this Word of God, which was written so many years ago, unless we receive it from authentic copies and manuscripts.

    The clergy have their commission from the Holy Ghost: the power of conferring this commission of the Holy Ghost was left with the Apostles : therefore the present clergy cannot have the same commission or call, but from an order of men who have successively conveyed this power from the Apostles to the present time. So that, my Lord, I shall beg leave to lay it down as a plain, undeniable, Christian truth, that the [105] order of the clergy is an order of as necessary obligation, as the sacrament; and as unalterable as the Holy Scriptures; the same Holy Ghost being as truly the author and founder of the priesthood, as the institutor of the sacraments, or the inspirer of those divine oracles. And when your Lordship shall offer ally fresh arguments to prove that no particular sort of clergy is necessary; that the benedictions and administrations of the present clergy of our most excellent Church, are trifling niceties; if I cannot show that the same arguments will conclude against the authority of the sacraments and the Scriptures, I faithfully promise your Lordship to become a Convert to your doctrine.

    What your Lordship charges upon your adversaries, as an absurd doctrine, in pretending the necessity of one regular, successive, and particular order of the clergy, is a true Christian doctrine; and as certain from Scripture, as that we are to keep to the institution of particular sacraments, or not to alter those particular Scriptures, which now compose the canon of the Old and New Testament.


| § IV | § VI |

§ V. Priestly benediction is authoritative and effectual, not by natural powers of men, but by commission from God. It operates not to the injury of the laity but for their benefit.

    The Deist Tindal, like the Bishop, would preserve order, yet denies any particular order. But order cannot be enforced on these principles.

    § V.  

By authoritative benediction, we do not mean any natural or intrinsic authority of our own: but a commission from God, to be effectual administrators of His ordinances, and to bless in His name. Thus, a person who is sent from God, to foretell things of which he had before no knowledge or notion, or to denounce judgments, which he has no natural power to execute, may be truly said to be an authoritative prophet, because he has the authority of God for what he does. Thus, [106] when the bishop is said to confer grace in confirmation, this is properly an authoritative benediction, because he is then as truly doing what God has commissioned him to do, as when a prophet declares upon what errand he is sent.

    It is in this sense, my Lord, that the people are said to be authoritatively, blessed by the regular clergy; because they are God’s clergy, and act by His commission; because by their hands the people receive the graces and benefits of God’s ordinances, which they have no more reason to expect from other ministers of their own election, or if the word may be used in an abusive sense, of their own consecration, than to receive grace from sacraments of their own appointment. The Scriptures teach us, that the Holy Ghost has instituted an order of clergy: we say, a priesthood so authorised, can no more be changed by us, than we can change the Scriptures, or make new sacraments, because they are all founded on the same authority, without any power of a dispensation delegated to us in one case more than in another. If therefore we have a mind to continue in the Covenant of Christ, and receive the grace and benefit of His ordinances, we must receive them through such hands is He has authorised for that purpose, to the end we may be qualified to partake the blessings of them. For, as a true priest cannot benefit us by administering a false sacrament, so a true sacrament is nothing, when it is administered by a false uncommissioned minister. Besides this benediction which attends the ordinances of God, when they are thus performed by authorised hands, there is a benediction of prayer, which we may justly think very effectual, when pronounced or dispensed by the same hands.

    Thus, when the bishop or priest intercedes for the congregation, or pronounces the Apostolical benediction [107] upon them, we do not consider this barely as an act of charity and humanity, of one Christian praying for another, but as the work of a person who is commissioned by God to bless in His name, and be effectually ministerial in the conveyance of His graces; or as the prayer of one who is left with us in Christ’s stead, to carry on His great design of saving us, and whose benedictions are ever ratified in heaven, but when we render ourselves, in one respect or other, incapable of them.

    Now, my Lord, they are these sacerdotal prayers, these authorised sacraments, these commissioned pastors whom the Holy Ghost has made overseers of the flock of Christ, that your Lordship encourages the laity to despise. You bid them "contemn the vain words of validity or invalidity of God’s ordinances; to heed no particular sort of clergy, or the pretended necessity of their administrations."26

    Your Lordship sets up in this controversy for an advocate for the laity, against the arrogant pretences, and false claims of the clergy. My Lord, we are no more contending for ourselves in this doctrine, than when we insist upon any article in the Creed. Neither is it any more our particular cause, when we assert our mission, than when we assert the necessity of the sacraments.

    Who is to receive the benefit of that commission which we assert, but they? Who is to suffer, if we pretend a false one, but ourselves? Sad injury, indeed, offered to the laity! That we should affect to be thought ministers of God for their sakes! If we really are so, they are to receive the benefit; if not, we are to bear the punishment.

    But your Lordship comes too late in this glorious undertaking, to receive the reputation of it: the work [108] has been already, in the opinion of most people, better done to your Lordship’s hands. The famous author of the "Rights of the Christian Church,"27 has carried this Christian liberty to as great heights as your Lordship. And though you have not one notion, I can recollect, that that has given offence to the world, but what seems taken from that pernicious book; yet your Lordship is not so just, as ever once to cite or mention the author; who, if your Lordship’s doctrine be true, deserves to have a statue erected to his honour, and receive every mark of esteem which is due to the greatest reformer of religion.

    Did not mine own eyes assure me, that he has cast no contempt upon the Church, no reproach upon the evangelical institutions, or the sacred function, but what has been seconded by your Lordship, I would never have placed your Lordship in the same view with so scandalous a declaimer against the ordinances of Christ. Whether I am right or not in this charge, I freely leave to the judgment of those to determine, who are acquainted with both your works. Yet this author, my Lord, has been treated by the greatest and best part of the nation as a freethinking infidel. But for what, my Lord? Not that he has declared against the Scriptures; not that he has rejected revelation (we are not, blessed be God, still so far corrupted with the principles of infidelity); but because he has reproached every particular Church, as such, and denied all obligation to communion; because he has exposed benedictions, absolutions, and excommunications; denied the divine right of the clergy, and ridiculed the pretended sacredness and necessity of their administrations, as mere niceties and trifles, though commonly in more distant, I was going to say, more decent ways: in a word, [109] because he made all Churches, all priests, all sacraments however administered, equally valid, and denied any particular method necessary to salvation. Yet after all this profane declamation, he allows, my Lord, that "religious offices may be appropriated to particular men, called clergy, for order sake only; and not on the account of any peculiar spiritual advantages, powers, or privileges, which those who are set apart for them, have from heaven."28

    Agreable to this, your Lordship owns, that you are not against the order, or decency, or sub-ordination belonging to Christian societies.29

    But, pray, my Lord, do you mean any more by this, than the above-mentioned author? Is it for anything but the sake of a little external order or convenience? Is there any Christian law that obliges to observe this kind of order? Is there any real essential difference between persons ranked into this order? Is it a sin for anybody, especially the civil magistrate, to leave this order, and make what other orders he prefers to it? This your Lordship cannot resolve in the affirmative for then you must allow, that some communions are safer than others, and that some clergy have more authority than others.

    Will your Lordship say, that no particular order can be necessary; yet some order necessary, which may be different in different communions? This cannot hold good upon your Lordship’s principles: for since Christ has left no law about any order, no members of any particular communion need submit to that order; since it is confessed by your Lordship, that in religion no laws, but those of Christ, are of any obligation. So that, though you do not disclaim all external order and [110] decency yourself, yet you have taught other people to do it if they please, and as much as they please.

    Suppose, my Lord, some layman, upon a pretence of your Lordship’s absence, or any other, should go into the diocese of Bangor, and there pretend to ordain clergymen; could your Lordship quote one text of Scripture against him? Could you allege any law of Christ, or His Apostles, that He had broken? Could you prove him guilty of any sin? No, my Lord, you would not do that, because this would be acknowledging such a thing as a sinful ordination; and if there be sinful ordinations, then there must be some law concerning ordinations: for sin is the transgression of the law: and if there be a law concerning ordinations, then we must keep to the clergy lawfully ordained; and must confess after all your Lordship has said, or can say, that still some communions are safer than others.

    If you should reprove such a one, as an Englishman, for acting in opposition to the English laws of decency and order; he would answer, that he has nothing to do with such trifles; that Christ was sole lawgiver in His kingdom; that He was content to have His kingdom as orderly and decent as Christ had left it; and since He had instituted no laws in that matter, it was presuming for others to take upon them to add anything by way of order or decency, by laws of their own that as he had as much authority from Christ, to ordain clergy, as your Lordship, he would not depart from his Christian liberty.

    If he should remonstrate to your Lordship in these, or words to the like effect, he would only reduce your Lordship’s own doctrine to practice. This, my Lord, is part of that confusion the learned Dr Snape has charged you with being the author of, in the Church of God. And all persons, my Lord, whom you have taught not [111] to regard any particular sort of clergy, must know (if they have the common-sense to which you appeal) that then no clergy are at all necessary, and that it is as lawful for any man to be his own priest as to solicit his own cause. For to say that no particular sort of clergy are necessary, and yet that in general, the clergy are necessary, is the same as to say that truth is necessary to be believed, yet the belief of no particular truth is necessary.

| § V | End |

§ VI. Of Absolution.

Obj. (a.) ‘Authoritative absolution must be infallible; but as men are not infallible they cannot absolve.’
Ans. 1. Authoritative absolution need not be infallible.
Ans. 2. The Christian religion and the sacraments are not infallible in their effects, yet are authoritative.

Obj. (b.) ‘Not all Apostolic powers have decended to ministers in all ages, therefore power of absolution need not.’
Ans. The clergy have not claimed all Apostolic powers, but have always claimed this one.

Obj. (c.) ‘It is blasphemy to claim to bless or not bless absolutely, for it supposes God has put a set of men above Himself.’
Ans. 1. None ever claimed to bless or withhold blessing absolutely. The clergy are utterly and continually dependent on God for all effectiveness.
Ans. 2. The sacraments are necessary to salvation, yet they do not dethrone God, nor do they benefit except conditionally.
Ans. 3. Mistaken or unjust use of absolution is visited not on the People but on the clergy.

    § VI.  (a.)  The next thing to be considered, my Lord, is your doctrine concerning absolutions. You begin thus: "The same you will find a sufficient reply to their presumptuous claim to an authoritative absolution. An infallible absolution cannot belong to fallible men. But no absolution can be authoritative, which is not infallible. Therefore no authoritative absolution can belong to any man living."30


    1.  I must observe here, your Lordship does not reject this absolution, because the claim of it is not founded in Scripture, but by an argument drawn from the nature of the thing: because you imagine such absolution requires infallibility for the execution of it, therefore it cannot belong to men. Should this be true, it would prove, that if our Saviour had really so intended, He could not have given this power to His ministers. But, my Lord, who can see any repugnance in the reason of the thing itself? Is it not as easy to conceive, that our Lord should confer His grace of pardon by the hands of His ministers, as by means of the sacraments? And may not such absolution be justly called authoritative, the power of which is granted and executed by his authority?

    Is it impossible for men to have this authority from God, because they may mistake in the exercise of it? This argument proves too much, and makes as short with every institution of Christianity as with this power of absolution.

    For if it is impossible, that men should have authority from God to absolve in His name because they are not infallible; this makes them equally incapable of being entrusted with any other means of grace, and consequently, supposes the whole priest’s office to imply a direct impossibility in the very notion of it.

    Your Lordship’s argument is this: Christians have their sins pardoned upon certain conditions; but fallible men cannot certainly know these conditions; therefore fallible men cannot have authority to absolve.

    From hence I take occasion to argue thus: Persons are to be admitted to the sacraments on certain conditions; but fallible men cannot tell, whether they come qualified to receive them according to these conditions; therefore fallible men cannot have authority to administer the sacraments.


    2.  This argument subverts all authority of the Christian religion itself, and the reason of every instituted means of grace. For if nothing can be authoritative, but what a man is infallibly assured of, then the Christian religion cannot be an authoritative method of salvation; since a man, by being a Christian, does not become infallibly certain of his salvation: nor does grace infallibly attend the participation of the sacraments. So that though your Lordship has formed this argument only against this absolving power, yet it has as much force against the sacraments and the Christian religion itself. For if it be absurd to suppose that the priest should absolve anyone, because he cannot be certain that he deserves absolution, does it not imply the same absurdity, to suppose that he should have the power of administering the sacraments, when he cannot be infallibly certain that those who receive them are duly qualified? If a possibility of error destroys the power in one case, it as certainly destroys it in the other. Again, if absolution cannot be authoritative unless it be infallible, then, it is plain that the Christian religion is not an authoritative means of salvation; because all Christians are not infallibly saved. Nor can the sacraments be authoritative means of grace, because all who partake of them do not infallibly obtain grace.


Your Lordship proceeds with your laity by way of expostulation: "If they amuse you with that power which Christ left with His Apostles, whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained unto them."31

    But why amuse, my Lord? Are the texts of Holy Scripture to be treated as only matter of amusement? Or does your Lordship know of any age in the Church, [114] when the very same doctrine which we now teach, has not been taught from the same texts?

    Do you know any successors of the Apostles that thought the power there specified did not belong to them? But, however, your Lordship has taught your laity to believe what we argue from this text, all amusement; and told them, "they may securely answer, that it is impossible for them to depend upon this right as anything certain, till they can prove to you, that everything spoken to the Apostles, belongs to ministers in all ages."32 The security of this answer, my Lord, is founded upon this false presumption—viz., that the clergy can claim no right to the exercise of any part of their office, "as successors of the Apostles," till they can prove that everything that was spoken to the Apostles, belongs to them.

    This proposition must be true; or else there is no force or security in the objection you here bring for the instruction of the laity. If it is well founded, then the clergy cannot possibly prove, they have any more right to the exercise of any part of their office than the laity. Do they pretend to ordain, confirm, to admit or exclude men from the sacraments? By what authority is all this done? Is it not, because the Apostles, whose successors they are, did the same things? ‘But then,’ say your Lordship’s well-instructed laity, ‘this is nothing to the purpose: prove yourselves apostles; prove that everything said to the Apostles, belongs to you; and then it will be allowed, that you may exercise these powers because they exercised them. But as this is impossible to be done; so it is impossible for you to prove, that you have any powers or authorities, because they had them.’

    And now, my Lord, if the case be thus, what apology [115] shall we make for Christianity, as it has been practised in all ages? How shall we excuse the noble army of martyrs, saints, and confessors, who have boldly asserted the right to so many Apostolical powers? Could any men in those ages pretend, "that everything that was spoken to the Apostles, belonged to themselves"? False then, was their claim, and presumptuous their authority; who should pretend to any Apostolical powers, because the Apostles had them; when they could not prove, "that everything that was spoken to the Apostles, belonged to them."

    (c.)  Further, to prove, that the above-mentioned text does not confer the power of absolution in the clergy, you reason thus: "Whatever contradicts the natural notions of God, and the design and tenor of the Gospel, cannot be the true meaning of any passage in the Gospel: but to make the absolution of weak and fallible men, so necessary, or so valid, that God will not pardon without them; or that all are pardoned who have them pronounced over them, is to contradict those notions, as well as the plain tenor of the Gospel."33

    Be pleased, my Lord, to point out your adversary: name any one Church of England man that ever taught this romantic doctrine which you are confuting. Whoever taught such a necessity of absolutions, that God will pardon none without them? Whoever declared that all are pardoned, who have them pronounced over them? We teach the necessity and validity of sacraments; but do we ever declare that all are saved who receive them? Is there no medium between two extremes? No such thing, my Lord, as moderation? Must everything be thus absolute and extravagant, or nothing at all?


    In another page, we have more of this same colouring: "But to claim a right to stand in God’s stead, in such a sense, that they can absolutely and certainly bless, or not bless, with their voice alone: This is the highest absurdity and blasphemy, as it supposes God to place a set of men above himself; and to put out of His own hands the disposal of His blessings and curses."34

    1.  If your Lordship had employed all this oratory against worshipping the sun or moon, it had just affected your adversaries as much as this. For whoever taught that any set of men could absolutely bless, or withhold blessing, independent of God? Whoever taught that the Christian religion, or sacraments, or absolution saved people on course, or without proper dispositions?. Whoever claimed such an absolving power, as to set himself above God, and to take from Him the disposal of His own blessings and curses? What has such extravagant descriptions, such romantic characters of absolution, to do with that power the clergy justly claim? Cannot there be a necessity in some cases of receiving absolution from their hands, except they set themselves above God? Is God robbed of the disposal of His blessings, when in obedience to His own commands, and in virtue of His own authority, they admit some as members of the Church, and exclude others from the communion of it? Do they pretend to be channels of grace, or the means of pardon, by any rights or powers naturally inherent in them? Do they not in all these things consider themselves as instruments of God, that are made ministerial to the edification of the Church, purely by His will, and only so far as they act in conformity to it? Now if it has pleased God to confer the Holy Ghost in ordination, confirmation, &c., [117] only by them, and to annex the grace of pardon to the imposition of their hands on returning sinners; is it any blasphemy for them to claim and exert their power? Is the prerogative of God injured because His own institutions are obeyed? Cannot He dispense His graces by what persons, and on what terms He pleases? Is He deprived of the disposal of His blessings, because they are bestowed on persons according to His order, and in obedience to His authority? If I should affirm, that bishops have the sole power to ordain and confirm, would this be robbing God of His disposal of those graces that attend such actions? Is it not rather allowing and submitting to God’s own disposal, when we keep close to those methods of it which Himself has prescribed?

    2.  Pray, my Lord, consider the nature of sacraments. Are not they necessary to salvation? But is God, therefore, excluded from any power of His own? Has He for that reason, set bread and wine in the Eucharist, or water in baptism, above Himself? Has He put the salvation of men out of His own power, because it depends on His own institutions? Is the salvation of Christians less His own act and deed, or less the effects of His own mercy, because these sacraments in great measure contribute to effect it? Why then, my Lord, must that imposition of hands, that is attended with His grace of pardon, and which has no pretence to such grace, but in obedience to His order, and in virtue of His promise, be thus destructive of His prerogative? Where is there any diminution of His honour or authority, if such actions of the clergy are made necessary to the salvation of souls in some circumstances, as their washing in water, or their receiving bread and wine? Cannot God institute means of grace, but those means must [118] needs be above Himself? They owe all their power and efficacy to His institution, and can operate no further than the ends for which He instituted them. How then is He dethroned for being thus obeyed?

    My Lord, you take no notice of Scripture; but in a new way of your own contend against this power, from the nature of the thing: yet I must beg leave to say, this power stands upon as sure a bottom, and is as consistent with the goodness and majesty of God, as the sacraments. If the annexing grace to sacraments, and making them necessary means of salvation, be a reasonable institution of God; so is His annexing pardon to the imposition of hands by the clergy on returning sinners. The grace or blessing received in either case, is of His own giving and in a method of His own prescribing; and how this should be an injury to God’s honour, or affront to His majesty, cannot easily be accounted for.

    The clergy justly claim a power of reconciling men to God, from express texts of Scripture; and of delivering His pardons to penitent sinners. Your Lordship disowns this claim, as making fallible men the absolute dispensers of God’s blessings, and putting it in their power to damn and save as they please. But, my Lord, nothing of this extravagance is included in it. They are only entrusted with a conditional power, which they are to exercise according to the rules God has given; and it only obtains its effect when it is so exercised. Every instituted means of grace is conditional; and is only then effectual, when it is attended with such circumstances as are required by God. If the clergy, through weakness, passion, or prejudice, exclude persons from the Church of God, they injure only themselves. But, my Lord, are these powers nothing, because they may be exercised in vain? Have [119] the clergy no right at all to them, because they are not absolutely infallible in the exercise of them.

    Can you prove, my Lord, that they are not necessary, because they have not always the same effect? May not that be necessary to salvation, which is only effectual on certain conditions? Is not the Christian religion necessary to salvation, though all Christians are not saved? Are not the sacraments necessary merits of grace, though the means of grace obtained thereby is only conditional? Is every one necessarily improved in grace, who receives the sacrament? or is it less necessary, because the salutary effects of it are not more universal? Why then must the imposition of hands be less necessary, because the grace of it is conditional and only obtained in due and proper circumstances? Is absolution nothing, because if withheld wrongfully, it injures not the person who is denied it; and if given without due dispositions in the penitent, it avails nothing? Is not this equally true of the sacraments, if they are denied wrongfully, or administered to unprepared receivers? But do they therefore cease to be standing and necessary means of grace?

    3.  The argument therefore against this power, drawn from the ignorance or passions of the clergy, whereby they may mistake or pervert the application of it, can be of no force, since it is as conditional as any other Christian institution. The salvation of no man can be endangered by the ignorance or passions of any clergyman in the use of this power: if they err in the exercise of it, the consequences of their error only affect themselves. The administration of the sacraments is certainly entrusted to them: but will any one say, that the sacraments are not necessary to salvation, because they may, through ignorance or passion, make an ill use of this trust?


    There is nothing in this doctrine to gratify the pride of clergymen, or encourage them to lord it over the flock of Christ. If you could suppose an Atheist or a Deist in orders, he might be arrogant, and domineer in the exercise of his powers: but who, that has the least sense of religion, can think it matter of triumph, that he can deny the sacraments, or refuse his benediction to any of his flock? Can he injure or offend the least of, these; and will not God take account? Or, if they fall through his offence, will not their blood be required at his hands?

    Neither is there anything in it that can enslave the laity to the clergy, or make their salvation depend upon their arbitrary will. Does any one think his salvation in danger, because the sacraments (the necessary means of it) are only to be administered by the clergy? Why then must the salvation of penitents be endangered, or made dependent on the sole pleasure of the clergy, because they alone can reconcile them to the favour of God? If persons are unjustly denied the sacraments, they may humbly hope that God will not lay the want of them to their charge. And if they are unjustly kept out of the Church and denied admittance, they have no reason to fear, but God will, notwithstanding, accept them, provided they be in other respects proper objects of His favour.

| § VI | Top |

1 "Preservative," p. 98 [i. 595].

2 P. 89 [i. 592].

3 P. 101 [i. 597].

4 Acts viii. 14.

5 First volume of Sermons. "On the True Nature of the Christian .Church," Sermon 1. p. 23; 2nd ed. 1709.

6 Heb. vi. 12.

7 Epistle lxxiii. 9.

8 Eph. iv. 7.

9 2 Tim. ii. 6.

10 1 Cor. x. i6.

11 Dr Potter’s "Church Government," chap. v. p. 353, 2nd. Ed. 1711.

12 Page 91 [i. 593]

13 "Rights of the Christian Church," by Matthew Tindal, Fellow of All Souls, Oxford; one of the Deists. See Leslie Stephen, English Thought in Eighteenth Century," ii. 11; x. 26.

14 Gen. xx. 7.

15 Deut. xxxiv. 9.

16 Job xlii. 8.

17 Num. vi. 22.

18 Deut. xxi. 5.

19 John xx. 21.

20 Matt. xxviii. 20.

21 Luke x. 16.

22 [i. 585, 593].

23 2 Cor. iv. 7.

24 2 Kings v. 12.

25 John xx. 22.

26 [i. 593].

27 Tindal, see p. 16 supra.

28 "Rights," chap. iv. p. 131, edition 1706.

29 "Answer to Dr Snape," p. 48 [ii. 427].

30 Preservative, p. 92 [i. 593].

31 Page 93 [i. 594].

32 Page 94 [i. 593].

33 Page 94 [i. 594].

34 Page 91 [i. 593].

Project Canterbury