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Convention of the Diocese of New-York, 1873,


Rt. Rev. HORATIO POTTER, D. D., LL. D., D. C. L.,





Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2007


IT may be proper to glance for a moment at what is passing in the world, in reference to the foundations of the faith and the certainty of the truth of God. Four years ago, in my annual Address, I made some strong, but not too strong, observations upon the skeptical and arrogant tone that appeared in no small portion of our popular literature. Those observations were not lightly made. Further reading and reflection suggest no change that I could wish to make in them, except to send them out to you the second time with increased emphasis. I have heard something that sounded like a suggestion that no person had a right to question certain statements and reasonings put forth in opposition to divine truth, unless prepared to meet those statements and reasonings with a full and exhaustive refutation. I do not by any means concur in that view. No doubt there has been a good deal of empty declamation launched at the enemies of revealed religion, and a good deal of ill-informed and mistaken discussion, which only injured the cause it was designed to serve, and which therefore might better have been spared. Not every clergyman, nor every layman is called upon to stand forth in a special and obtrusive way as a defender of the faith. Nevertheless there are times when it may be found to be the imperative duty of the parent in the family, of the pastor in the parish, of the professor in the college, and by parity of reason of [3/4] the Bishop in the Diocese, to put those for whom he is in any way responsible on their guard against deceptive statements, against plausible but false and sinister modes of reasoning, and that without being at the pains of going into long and elaborate disquisitions.

When a few people are seen to be passionately devoted to certain novel views, which are subversive of all faith and all religion--views which are supported by extravagant assumptions and by the smallest possible amount of clear and legitimate evidence, views which are in flagrant contrariety not only to the best instincts of our nature and to the common religious sentiments of the intelligent portion of mankind, but to the whole teaching of what we hold to be the Word of God, not merely its supposed teaching, touching certain questions of time, but all its teaching respecting God, redemption and the whole world of the supernatural, I say, when such a class of teachers appear, and not content to deal modestly rigidly with the natural, show themselves anxious to overthrow all received, all revealed conceptions of the divine, the supernatural, I think the parent in the family, the pastor in the Parish--and so of other teachers, may, if they think it needful, content themselves with a single word of exposure and warning.

Having passed several years in the early portion of my life in the study and in the teaching of several branches of the mathematical and physical sciences, I have no reason to be, and I do not think I am, wanting in respect or sympathy toward those studies, or toward those who cultivate them. I love them still. I rejoice in their wonderful triumphs. Among the men of science are some of the noblest of our race. A few of them I have had the happiness of numbering among my friends, and I have esteemed them for many elevated and admirable qualities, chiefest among them all, their reverence for religion and for immutable religious truth. Between scientific studies, properly conducted, and religious truth there can be no legitimate conflict. When [4/5] those two great volumes, the Book of Revelation and the Book of Nature, are both correctly interpreted, they will be found, so far as they speak to the same points, in perfect harmony, for they are both from the same author.

With regard to the present state of agencies and influences which are designed or which tend to unsettle the faith of Christian people, to impair reverence for the religious truth commonly received in Christian communities, there are two very different aspects, in which those agencies and influences may be viewed. The one may be termed the primary or scientific aspect, the other the secondary or popular aspect. Let us notice first the secondary or popular aspect.

Every one knows how novel and startling or imposing conceptions originating in the superior or intellectual strata of society soon pass down entire, or in part, clearly or obscurely into the inferior or secondary strata of society, into the popular literature and into the discourse of common life. Those novel conceptions coming from the higher regions of intelligence may be true, or they may be false. But if they are striking, if they are grand and imposing, if they are supported by plausible statements and illustrations, if they are embodied in shapes that help the conceptive powers of second-hand thinkers, they will be eagerly accepted in many quarters, and gain currency in common discourse and popular literature--they will be welcome, because with us as with the Athenians, people are eager "to tell, or to hear some new thing," and because in certain circles talk about such adventurous speculations carries with it an air of superior wisdom.

These observations are abundantly exemplified in the histories of the false and vanishing systems of philosophy in past ages. There never was a startling theory, or assumption, or an imposing phrase originating among the philosophers and for a time maintaining its credit among a considerable portion of them, which, however [5/6] false and absurd, did not descend and gain for a time a certain currency in common discourse, and in popular literature. And when at length it gradually became discredited in the elevated circles where it originated, it was often a long time before it vanished from the popular mind and discourse.

Now if we look to a portion of our popular literature, and no inconsiderable portion of it, and observe how it has become infested with certain skeptical views, and skeptical ways of speaking derived from some reigning celebrities in the regions of ambitious and eccentric thinking, we are led into a train of most melancholy reflection on the mischievous effects likely to be produced, must I not rather say, sure to be produced in thousands of young minds, and half educated minds of every age, by these millions of leaves wafted through the air, found in almost every house, filled with pretended discoveries, with groundless assumptions, with a supercilious tone of superiority to the old faith of the Church of God, a faith, which in all essential particulars, stands to-day on as firm a foundation as in any past age, yea firmer. How many of all those readers will have the fixed principles, the knowledge and judgment to cast aside, or to estimate at their true value, the vague insinuations, the lofty sophistries which they every where encounter! In a few years, no doubt, the ambitious speculation as to all that is mischievous in it will be exploded, as many others have been exploded before it. But in the meantime seeds of evil may have been sown in thousands and thousands of minds from which they can never be wholly eradicated. The original author of the delusive speculative assumption may have passed away, and in all the higher circles of thought the credit of the magnificent dream may have utterly faded away, but far down in the popular mind habits of thought and speaking and writing will have been generated--pernicious, misleading, destructive habits of thought, which will long survive the author, and perhaps long [6/7] survive all respect, in any competent circle, for his speculation.

The author of a book full of skeptical ingenuity, full of scorn and contempt for Christian truth, full of subtle, deadly poison, completes his work, sends it out to go about its Satanic ministry among his fellow men, and soon after passes away himself from this world of shadows, this little theatre of ignorance and pride, and sin and self-will, into a world of eternal light and truth. Instantaneously there is flashed upon him and through him a tremendous demonstration, not only of the falseness of his book, but of its perverse and evil spirit, its pride and arrogance, and its deadly influence. Perhaps from beyond that bourne from which no traveller returns, he looks back upon this world, and sees his book busy doing its demoniacal office with the souls of men--dropping, as it passes on, wretched perverting thoughts into the mind, which can hardly by any power be cast out. Well indeed may he behold the work with horror and despair, for he has no power to recall the messenger of sin and death--no voice potential enough to reach the earth and arrest the plague.

I say, then, without pursuing these thoughts, that if I look, not to the scientific aspects of the present skeptical movements, not to the merits of the skeptical speculations and their probable fortunes in the future, but to the secondary aspect of the case, to the injurious popular influences resulting from those speculations--influences now at work in the popular mind, and likely to continue for a considerable time--the contemplation is, I confess, to any thoughtful mind, a very serious and sad one. Mischief is abroad in the world, threatening to pervert unstable minds among the young, stirring up pride and conceit, and subverting that fear of the Lord in which alone is the beginning of all true wisdom.

But in the presence of such a mischief, I am free to say that my thoughts do not turn first of all to argument, to direct answers to objections. Arguments and [7/8] answers, in the proper places and times, there must of course be. But my thoughts turn first of all--may the hearts of all the clergy and all the laity go with me--my thoughts turn first of all for a remedy, to more fervent prayer, public and private, to more simple, practical, positive setting forth of the truth of God in all its aspects, to a closer dealing with consciences, especially of the young in public and in private, to more earnest Church work in destitute places, in the regions of misery and sorrow and destitution and debasing sin. The truth and Church of God are ever mightier than the world, when they use their own true weapons, when they work the works of Christ and image forth the life of Christ. I speak not as if we had been recreant to our duty; but I cry out for a more fervent and lofty spirit, and for a closer walk with God. With many of us the time is short.

If I turn, for a moment, to consider what I have termed the primary or scientific aspect of the present skeptical movement--the case as it stands, with the original propounders of these speculations, I am free to say--possibly the observation may be surprising to some who hear me--my views are much more cheerful. In the way of antagonism to divine truth it will be conceded, I suppose, that a certain class of thinkers have done their worst, and that worst, so far as the ultimate interests of what we hold to be the truth are concerned, does not seem to me to be formidable. They have propounded the most extreme and revolutionary views; they have put forth all their strength in the way of argument and evidence; but the evidence and the argument are alike fallacious, a poor support for the stupendous superstructure which is made to rest upon it.

It is no new thing for the world to be jealous of the testimony of witnesses, or the opinions of judges, however respectable, who are known to be deeply and passionately interested in the questions at issue. It is an old familiar truth in the medical profession, that if a [8/9] physician has become passionately devoted to a theory, (if it be very novel and very eccentric it is all the worse,) if he has stood out before the world, and put his whole character for judgment, and reputation for professional acumen and skill upon the hazard of that one theory, then his testimony as to the history of cases of disease observed by him, must be scrutinized with the extreme of caution, and before being accepted, must be again and again supported by corroborative evidence. The same is true, of course, in regard to scientific men, able and eminent men, when, in a proud and imperious spirit, they make themselves responsible for startling conclusions, for novel theories. Their testimony and their reasoning need to be jealously watched; they have been often found to be utterly fallacious. In the progress of science, no doubt many such conclusions have been established, many such theories have been verified. But never any conclusion of any importance, by any such reasoning and evidence as have been offered in the cases to which I refer. Never since inductive reasoning has been known in the world, has any thing so astounding in the way of hypothesis been put forward as even probable, not to say arrogantly assumed to be established fact upon reasoning and evidence, so utterly unsubstantial.

If any one at all familiar with the history of scientific investigation for the last two or three hundred years, will compare the rigid methods of the greatest masters and discoverers in science, the modesty and severity with which they scrutinized evidence, with the style of the reasoning and evidence offered in support of these late assumptions, he will see the difference--the difference between true science of the loftiest type, calmly pursuing its way, animated only by a supreme love of truth, distrusting itself until it has reached the fullest demonstration, and the spirit of this late peculiar school of scientists, who, though possessed, some of them, of [9/10] brilliant abilities, are yet so proudly and passionately devoted to certain foregone conclusions, are so goaded on by what looks like a sinister temper, that they pour contempt upon all dissent, and plant themselves as confidently and triumphantly upon the vapors of a cloud as they could have done upon the adamantine summit of the loftiest mountain.

Newton, when engaged in his first tentative investigation in regard to the great law of gravitation, reaches a conclusion which does not strictly harmonize with his hypothesis. The verification only fails by a small fractional amount. He stands on the verge of one of the greatest discoveries ever made in the history of science. The error arises from the fact, then unknown, that one of the quantities entering into his investigation had an incorrect measure assigned to it. But who, among a certain class of philosophers, would have hesitated to proclaim the great discovery. The variation would have been treated as unimportant. But Newton was too modest, too severe in his habits of reasoning; he was too upright to boast of a demonstration which he had not reached, to vaunt a triumph which he had not achieved. He suspects there is something which he does not understand. He puts the whole matter aside for years, and refuses to speak of it, until at length after several years, hearing that a correcter measure had been obtained from one of his elements, he resumes the investigation, and reaches the conclusive result, converting by a single step, much of the science of astronomy into a mere mechanical problem.

Excuse the introduction of these particulars. I think they are instructive. They stand out in striking contrast to the hasty inductions, the rash generalizations, which have been flaunted in the face of the Christian world to frighten it out of its faith and its dearest hopes. It is painful to observe, what unhappily we have too many proofs of, that a certain class of scientific men (I am sure [10/11] they are very few in number) are of such a spirit that instead of seeming to advance reluctantly in opposition to received religious opinions, and only because they feel constrained by the facts that open before them, they take a manifest pleasure in opposing Christian truth and assailing the belief of Christian people, even in friendly circles, wherever the opportunity is presented. Instances might be mentioned, but I forbear.

We have heard of great conquerors in the world who went on from one magnificent triumph to another until they became intoxicated, lost their senses, and were hurried on to attempt such absurd impossibilities that they were whelmed in ruin, and lost at once their power and their glory. The triumphs achieved in their own legitimate province, by the men of science, are great enough to content any reasonable human being. They are truly wonderful. All the world acknowledges the debt of gratitude. All the world hopes for and expects similar triumphs, yielding similar blessings in the future. But if any of them lose their senses, if they attempt to build a tower that will enable them to mount up to the heavens and abolish the supernatural, they will find a power still higher above them that will confound their devices and whelm them in confusion and shame. It may be that they will have made some very good brick, useful for inferior purposes, in other words, like the alchemists, they may make some very useful observations to serve the purposes of natural science, though they will not subserve the objects aimed at; they will not lead to the discovery of the philosopher's stone; they will not aid the attempt to show how reason and conscience may be extracted from mere physical elements, nor help to build the tower that is to lift them above the supernatural. By all means let observations be carried on with vigor, but let them be conducted in a reverent spirit, with the modesty of true science, and on rigid scientific principles.

The history of assaults upon divine revelation has [11/12] always been one and the same. They have occurred in many different periods. They have drawn out great and triumphant defences, vindications of Christianity, and then they have perished. The defences remain as imperishable bulwarks of Christian truth; but not one in a thousand knows even the name of those whose attacks called them forth.

Some of the more recent demonstrations of hostility, as for example those made against the reasonableness and the efficiency of prayer, seem to me to have rendered this further service to the cause of truth. By the dreadful perversion of feeling, by the manifest misconception of the very nature of prayer, they have once again made it evident to all considerate persons to what an infinite distance a certain class of minds, or minds in a certain state, are removed from the possibility of comprehending moral and spiritual things.

My dear brethren, let us always remember one great truth--let the world change as it may, let knowledge increase, let the conflicts between truth and error break out ever so often, and rage ever so fiercely, still man's relation to the Gospel will remain ever the same. He will stand before the Gospel as before a divine touchstone, which, if it come near, will draw out, develope, and determine his latent tendencies. The qualification that must determine how we will regard the Gospel, and how the Gospel will affect him, will be ever a moral qualification. The Gospel tries his moral nature of what sort it is. As in our Saviour's time, there was a class of minds which not only resisted the force of His miracles, but were exasperated by them, so will there always be a similar class--minds too much averted and indisposed to be moved by any kind of evidence, or any presentation of the truth. "Wisdom is justified of all her children." "If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light." "If any man will do His will--be willing to do His will--he shall know of the doctrine." [12/13] After all the transmutations that may take place in the world, man will ever find himself subjected to the same moral conditions, standing in the same moral relation to the Gospel. Evidence and argument are good things in their place. There may be more, or there may be less of them. The presence of the Saviour of the world, calling the dead to life, may fail to convert the obdurate sinner. The gentlest whisper from one of the weakest of Christ's true servants may be God's instrument for touching the loftiest, proudest intellect, and raising an immortal soul from the lowest depths of the death of sin up to the brightest glories of the life of righteousness. Dearest brethren, let this be our consolation and encouragement. Let this give wings to our prayers, and nerve our hearts to speak for our dear Lord in the presence of the great congregation, or in private in the gloom of the death-chamber of the seemingly lost.

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