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care and thought of God would vanish ; not at once, but would
; insensibly decay and wear out, till it was forgotten and lost from the minds and memory of mankind. The generality of the people would come, in process of time, to know as little of their Creator's institution, and think and care as little about it, as they do of the religion of their forefathers, the ancient Britons; and the effect which any institution, or the omission of it, has upon the generality of mankind, is what ought chiefly to be attended to. It is not what two or three scholars, what a few who give themselves up to meditation and study, might do without the assistance of these institutions, but what the general condition of mankind would be without it. Amongst these, something visible, something eternal, is absolutely necessary to remind them of religious matters; and the very visible external part of Christianity is its religious assemblies, and its sabbaths, and its sacraments. In any, or in such change of civil polity, where all public worship and observance of the sabbath is obliged to be discontinued, it is wonderful how soon the impression and thought of religion begin to be laid aside. Man is an animal partly rational and partly sensitive. In the eye of cool abstract reasoning, the way to judge of the truth and importance of religion is not perhaps to see whether any outward public act of religion be upheld or not; and where we are under the direction of this and of nothing else, the influence and impression of religion would be neither more nor less for any external observation whatever. But that purely rational nature is not the nature of man. He has senses which must be applied to; for by these his conduct, if not his judgment, is guided and drawn, more than by speculation. Therefore if he be not kept up by something visible and obvious to his senses; if a man have not constantly something to see and to join in ; some outward public expression of worship, some distinction of times and places, something, in a word, to revive from time to time, and refresh the fading ideas of religion in his imagination, they will by degrees lose all their hold and all their effect. His will, and his sluggish resolutions to will, are then dull and languid. And yet in his judgment and understanding, religion may have all the evidence of its truth, and must of necessity be equally important as it ever was. But judgment and understanding are not what direct the ways of men, or ever can do, without the assistance of impressions made upon the imagination by means of the senses.
But secondly; I do not find that any are inclined to dispute the point so far as to say that the knowledge of Almighty God, of our relation to him, of our dependence upon him for all that is to come, and the duties which we owe to him, and to our fellow creatures for his sake, are such in themselves as can do without any kind of religious act and religious worship at all. But why, say they, is it necessary to come to church for this ? Is it not equally effectual, equally acceptable to God and useful to myself, when performed in my own chamber or in my own family!
In the first place, I wish it were generally true, that those who seldom frequent church were regular in their devotion at home ; for whatever face and reasonableness there may be in the excuse, it must still depend upon the fact being true, or it cannot stand them in any stead. Men are not less remiss and negligent in their private than their public worship. But in the second place, may it not be said, that without public worship the greater part would exercise no religious worship at all? It is not every man that is capable of conceiving an address to his Creator ; however, it is not every one that thinks and feels
; himself capable. This would be a constant excuse. It is easy to direct men to retire into their hearts and their own closets, there to commune with God and with themselves, and an excellent and spiritual exercise this is; but there are but a few who are qualified for such a task. There are men who would never feel inclination for such a task, through the whole courst of their lives. Besides that, nothing is done regularly which is not done at stated times and seasons. When times and seasons are stated and appointed by public authority and common consent, they are always observed, and will be observed, more or less.
But is it to be expected from the generality of men, occupied in the constant round of daily business and daily amusements, or interested in the providing a subsistence for themselves and family; or that others, no less eager in raising a fortune, or engaged in spending one; is it, I say, to be expected that men thus conditioned and circumstanced should in general prescribe to themselves regular returns of private or domestic devotion, or should withdraw themselves from all engagements to attend these returns ? Therefore if
any one, as an apology for absenting himself from public worship, says that public assemblies are not necessary to the men who would and do perform their devotions at home; I answer, that whatever they may be to you, they are necessary for others, or the generality of others, who neither could nor would, without stated returns of public devotion, exercise any religious worship at all. They would be without that opportunity of religious instruc
tion which christian assemblies afford. Let no one say, I stay at
1 home because I can hear nothing at church but what I know already, but what I learn at home is learnt better by my own reflection. Be it so; but if this be the case with you, it is not so with all, or with the generality of others; and whatever is for the benefit of the whole is binding upon the whole. For, to let you see how necessary your attendance upon public worship and instruction, if not for yourself, is for others, you need only reflect what would be the consequence if any one was to withdraw himself from religious assemblies who found that he was above receiving any benefit from them. First one would drop, and then another, till none was left but those whose humility and low opinion of themselves disposed them to seek assistance and instruction from any quarter, and who, in fact, were probably nearer the spirit of Christianity than the others. In one word, assemblies for religious purposes would speedily be put out of countenance and out of credit, if what we call the higher class of mankind were to absent themselves from the appointed places, that they might be qualified to exercise their religious duties without them, and every one who pleased was at liberty to rank himself of that class. You must also observe one thing, which you must expect will be quite your own case. You absent yourself from church to employ your time more, you think, to your edification, in reading or meditation; and possibly you may, but your ignorant neighbour, who stays from church to spend his day in idleness and drunkenness, and less religious society than any other day in the week, will think he only follows your example, because you both agree in this; in staying from church. Now one is bound to consider, not only what the actions are in themselves, but the effects they are likely to produce by their example. For loving to do good is virtue ; loving to do harm is vice; and it matters little whether the good or harm is the immediate consequence of our own conduct, or proceed from the influence which our conduct has
I forbear to mention at present any subordinate, though important advantages, which result from social worship; because it is enough for one time to understand the direct ground of our obligation. I propose in the foremost place, the command of God, evidenced by the practice and example of all the apostles and first followers of Christ. I propose, in the second place, the propriety of social worship with respect to the object of worship, the Supreme Being himself, as the only and best advance we are capable of making towards a homage in any way
suited to the dignity of his nature and the immensity of our obligation. I propose, in the third place, the utility of public devotion to ourselves; which utility I ground upon three plain propositions. Religious worship, of some kind, is absolutely necessary, to uphold a sense of religion in the world. Without public worship at stated times and places, a great part kind would exercise no religious worship at all. If those who thought themselves needlessly instructed and directed to hear in our religious assemblies unnecessary truths, were for that reason to forsake the assembling themselves together, religious assemblies would soon be put out of countenance and out of credit, and in process of time would be laid aside ; for the most ignorant and incapable, provided they were of a presumptuous temper, would take courage from the example of their betters to withdraw themselves as well as others, and convert that time, which was intended for the best purposes, to idleness, debauchery, and excess.
OUTWARD ACTS OF DEVOTION NO EXCUSE FOR
NEGLECT OF MORALITY.
MATTHEW V. 20.
Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and
Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.
It will be sufficient at present to observe, that the Pharisees were a religious sect among the Jews, who set up for extraordinary sanctity and strictness, as St Paul says, after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.' The Scribes were the persons employed to interpret the Jewish law, as our Saviour asks, 'How say the Scribes, that Christ is the son of David ?' They were appointed to instruct the people, and probably the youth in particular, in that law. Both these descriptions of men were at that time of day of the greatest reputation in the country, for holiness and wisdom; and both valued themselves chiefly upon, and made their righteousness consist in, a most strict and rigid observance of the rites, ceremonies, and outward offices of religion ; such, for example, as fasting, making long prayers, avoiding all unclean meat, and unclean persons according to the distinction of their law, attending upon the Temple at their great feast, not eating with unwashed hands, and many other such outward acts as were commanded; some very proper and reasonable, others again frivolous and superstitious. It was in the outward observance of these that the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees consisted ; and our Saviour tells his disciples, that unless their righteousness was something more and better than this, unless it exceeded the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, they could not enter into the kingdom of heaven.'
If there was one thing which our Saviour labored more than another, if there was one error against which he inveighed with more than usual earnestness, it was the trusting in the rites and ceremonies, the outward duties and offices of religion, and neglecting in the meantime, or living in the transgression of, the substantial obligations of virtue and morality. And it was with great reason, that he so industriously cautioned his followers against this notion; it being that into which mankind in all ages and countries of the world have been most apt to fall
. We will first take notice of some passages of scripture, which show our Lord's sentiments upon the subject; and add a few reflections, by way of making them applicable to ourselves.
In the twentythird chapter of Matthew, he expresses himself very strongly on this subject, and in a variety of phrases.
Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; for ye pay tithe of mint, and cummin, and anise, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith,' or rather fidelity ; "these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.' The paying tithe of mint and cummin was only put as an instance; the observation is general, that while they were scrupulous to the least tittle about the outward ordinances and observance of the law, they hoped to pass over the more substantial part of it, and what our Saviour calls the weightier matters of the law,' justice, mercy, and fidelity. This was their conduct; and how does our Saviour treat it? He calls it no better than hypocrisy, and promises it nothing but woe ; .Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.
But our Saviour goes on; Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; for ye make clean the outside of the platter, but within ye are full of extortion and excess.' About the outside of the cup, or that part of their conduct which was open and shown to the world, which consisted of specious performances, and acts of outward devotion and piety, they were