Page images
PDF
EPUB

might be much increased) it appears that Conscience, as its nature and office are thus defined, represents a light, spark, faculty, or principle in the human mind of the very highest rank and authority and that there is such a power is taken for granted by all without any shadow of doubt. Nothing appears but that it is an original independent principle, sacred and inviolable, because accountable only to God, and receiving its dictates immediately from Him. The only question is, to what degree of humiliation or depression it may be liable, from the general weakness and depravity of human nature.

The common opinion seems to be, that the Conscience, with every ordinary help internal and external, is not fully competent to ascertain its duties, (according to the Christian model of duty) without the written letter of Revelation. For it is known to be easily warped, and men are liable, from various causes, to be mistaken with regard to their duties. Where then is the ultimate criterion or standard,—in Scripture or in the mind? If in Scripture, What is the rule that binds those who are without it? If in the mind, Is Scripture to be undervalued and set aside?

Without the ground-work of Conscience (taking the term in its most comprehensive meaning) it is to be presumed, that Scripture would be a dead letter, wholly inapplicable to the state of man and unintelligible. The foundation is therefore laid in the mind. But, without Scripture, the superstructure of Faith and Practice, with its accompanying supports, could

[ocr errors]

not be distinctly known. Yet, after all, outward knowledge, however perfect, is only one of the means of leading to inward purity. And it is for God alone to judge how far this outward knowledge by Scripture is essential to the great end of Life. Scripture is one of the purest and clearest streams that have ever issued from the fountain of divine Goodness, which has established a native spring of Truth and Virtue in every soul. The pure dictates of one cannot therefore oppose the pure dictates of the other; seeing their source is the same.

If we change the metaphor; the degree of light may vary according as one man has a greater measure than another. But the light of an apostle is not one thing, and the light of the heathen another thing, distinct in principle. They differ only in degree of power, distinctness, and splendor of manifestation :— and, so far only, does a Gospel truth differ from the natural unsophisticated moral rule of the unlettered Indian, who sees the Majesty of Heaven in clouds and hears his voice in thunder.

In the descriptions of Conscience by the writers above quoted, its rule and authority are set forth without conditions or limitation, as the distinguishing and glorious privilege of man. It is considered to be the Guide of conduct, the light of the mind, the candle of the Lord, the spark of divine purity, the throne and vicegerent of God himself. It is not pre. sumed that Education can do more than call it forth, by directing the attention of the mind to a hidden

treasure, and thus by cultivation improving it, like every other talent; but it is not implied, that its rule and light are of necessity to come from without. The spark is kindled by the Almighty; and man has to cherish it into a flame. The seed is planted by the Creator; and human vigilance must secure the fruit. If it were wholly dependent on others, it would be a rule and standard fabricated by man; or even if it were dependent on Scripture, although the medium might be of divine original, yet the source being removed, the benefits would be circumscribed, and millions would be deprived of the blessing.

If the moral rule and standard are wholly from without, how should it happen that the maxims imbibed are of so much more sacred and obligatory a character, than those of speculative truth conveyed by the same outward medium? For, there is an inherent authority in the pure Conscience which stamps its dictates with no second-hand commission. Scarcely any one speaks of it but as the power by which man holds direct intercourse with his Maker, and by which peace is whispered in the soul, or the bosom is stung with remorse, by an immediate divine influence.

It would be strange if, in all the first lessons taught by this principle, man should be the only teacher, and they should come by the outward ear; while in all the subsequent steps of its progress, the Almighty himself should exercise the government, and issue his mandate immediately from his own sanctuary. This is surely not consistent with the moral economy

of a Universal Parent, who acknowledges the inhabitants of the whole earth as his children; who is himself their only Judge; and who exacts no more service from any mortal than he has given ability to perform, nor a greater measure of obedience than he has afforded light and knowledge of duty. For, without presuming to anticipate the righteous decisions of a Being excellent in wisdom, confiding nevertheless in the faith of his own declarations, and moreover persuaded that the Gospel of Christ is the most glorious revelation of God's will to man;-I speak it with reverence-it is still possible that the scattered tribes of the human family most remote from civilized society, and least acquainted with the real condition of man, may rise up in judgment against the most enlightened; if the first obey the few precepts enjoined by their simple consciences; and the last, possessing all knowledge, all faith, and all Scripture, are yet wanting in their obedience to the light they have received.

But I am anticipating a discussion that is to follow in another place,

Enough is said to show that Conscience is usually taken in that latitude of meaning which comprehends the only principle by which man can have access to his Maker; and it directly involves the notion of natural or ordinary Revelation. And however it may include that knowledge of duty which properly belongs to the understanding, (which, it must however be allowed, agrees best with the etymology of the

word) it invariably includes that instinctive perception of vice and virtue, or moral beauty and deformity-that internal sense of right and wrong, prompting the will-which is implanted by the Deity, and is to be accounted the foundation of Morality and Religion.

SECT. II.

Of Conscience-its limited Signification.

When Conscience is stated to be an insufficient Guide without the light of Scripture, or independent of holy writ; and when it is also stated that different moral rules are held conscientiously sacred in different countries; it is evidently brought somewhat lower in our estimation as a regulating principle of the mind; in one case, requiring help which is often casual or incidental; and in the other, from an umpire and witness for God, being reduced to the state of an uncertain rule, that varies its standard according to the customs and local institutions of men.

Now, there can be no doubt that, by a law of our nature, the human mind may be brought to that state in which it shall regard as a sacred obligation what is not the dictate of immutable truth. And the fact proves two things-First, The facility with which mankind bind themselves to acts of supposed duty; and secondly, the docility with which they tacitly submit, or at least acknowledge, themselves to be creatures accountable to some invisible Supreme

« PreviousContinue »