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A Series Of Letters In Defence Of Divine Revelation by Hosea Ballou


[The first letter of the objector was designed merely as an Introduction, inviting Mr. B. to the investigation of the important subject of moral truth, or more particularly the truth of divine revelation. The following are extracts.]

|The thought has long since occurred to me that the present age is an age of discovery and improvement. The human mind seems to be developing its powers in a most wonderful manner; new inventions, new discoveries, and new theories are the fruits of new experiments; while many are improving upon theories and subjects already existing. Thus human nature seems to be almost prepared to make a regular advance in moral as well as scientific truth.

|However pleasing this must be to every real lover to the arts and sciences, yet there seems to be a disposition (at least, as it respects all moral and religious subjects) to chain down the human mind to its present attainments, and thereby prevent all further improvement. O how long will it be before common sense shall burst this bubble of fanaticism, and all its mists become evaporated and removed by the rays of simple and native truth? Then shall man know for himself that, under God, all his powers and faculties are as free as the element he breathes. Free to think, free to speak, and free to act as reason and good sense shall dictate. Supposing that you and I should think of setting an example for others, by trying to throw off the prejudices of a false education, so far as we have been thus entangled, and search for the truth within us, as the foundation of all TRUTH which materially concerns us to know. Who, except our own consciences, will ever call us to an account for so doing?

|It gives me pain when I see what time and money, what labour and toil have been expended, and are still expending, in plodding over, as it were an old dead letter; to learn languages which exist no where only on paper, barely for the sake of reading the opinions of other men, in other times; men who lived in other ages of the world, and under very different circumstances from ourselves; whose opinions, all of which are worth preserving, might be given in our own language, so as to answer every purpose which can be answered by them, at less than a hundredth part of the expense it necessarily requires to obtain a competent knowledge of those languages in which almost every thing, supposed to be valuable, has been originally written. And after all, the truth, or falsity, of every proposition must depend on the truth or falsity of the principles embraced in it; and not on the language in which it was originally written.

|If the Greek and Hebrew languages be any security against things being uttered or written falsely in those languages, I should not only think it important to learn them, but to adopt them, if possible, as our vernacular tongue. -- But as I believe none will contend for this, I should like to be informed of what possible service it can be to an American to learn either of those languages? Is it not a fact, that every natural as well as moral truth may be fully unfolded to the understanding without them? This will lead the way to one of the principal subjects which I mean to discuss. It maybe said, that the holy scriptures were originally written in Greek and Hebrew: viz. the bible, which contains a revelation of the will of God concerning the duty, interest, and final destination of mankind. This, if admitted, gives the Greek and Hebrew languages an importance that nothing else could. Hence the importance of preserving the Greek and Hebrew languages, without which, religion could not be preserved in its purity. And as all have not an opportunity of attaining to a knowledge of those languages, it is the more necessary that some should, lest the knowledge of languages, on which so much is supposed to depend, should be lost to the world.

|If I understand the above proposition, it seems to be this: The only revelation of God to man, which was ever recorded on either vellum or paper, was written partly in Greek and partly in Hebrew; hence, the revealed will of God cannot be known only through the medium of those languages. If the truth of all this can be made to appear, I should find no difficulty in admitting all the consequences which must result from such premises. It appears a little extraordinary, however, to my understanding, and not a very little neither, that God should make a revelation of his will in one age, and not in another; to one nation; and not to another; or that he should make a revelation in one language, and not in another! If a special revelation, was ever necessary at all, it is difficult for me to see why it was not equally necessary in all ages of the world, to all the nations of the earth, and in all languages ever spoken by man.

|How sweet is truth to the understanding! And, when spoken in a language every word of which is familiar, how harmonious it sounds to the ear by which the sentiments find their way to the heart!

|When God speaks to the inward man there is no need of going to Lexicons, Dictionaries, and Commentaries to know what he means. I would not complain, however, even of this method to ascertain truth, if I could be so happy as always to come away satisfied. But to consider a subject on which much is supposed to depend, and, desiring if possible to obtain the truth, plod through the dark mists occasioned by the ambiguity and contradiction of authors, and after all, be obliged to dismiss the subject as much in the dark as it was found, is too insupportable to be confided in as the only road to moral truth.

|Let it not be supposed however, that I mean to insinuate that the bible contains no moral truth; so far from this, I conceive it to be replete with moral instruction; that is to say, there are excellent moral maxims in the bible; but respecting these there is neither ambiguity nor obscurity; and probably for this plain reason, because there seems to be no dispute about them. These however are none the more true for being written, and would have been equally true if found in any other book, and at the same time not found in the bible. Truth is truth wherever found, and all moral truth, as well as natural, must be eternal in its nature.

|Much of the bible however, is merely historical; and whether most of the things there related are either true or not, I do not see any connexion they either have, or can have, with either my present or future happiness. As for instance, I do not see how my happiness is at all connected with the story of Daniel's being cast into the den of lions -- or of Jonah's being swallowed by a fish! any more than it is with the story of Remus and Romulus' being nursed by a she wolf! And if not, these things are matters of total indifference; yea, as much so as the extraordinary, and, were it not for comparing things supposed to be sacred with profane, I would say, ridiculous stories in the heathen mythology. If it should be contended that the facts recorded in sacred history are necessary to prove the power and providence of God towards his children, it may be answered that those in profane history, if true, are equally conclusive. If it should be said that we cannot place the same confidence in profane history as in sacred, it brings me to the very subject of my inquiry -- viz.

|If the things stated in the bible are no more reasonable than those in profane history, what reason have we to believe these any more than those? Must not our own reason finally determine for ourselves whether or not either be true? And if we are in no sense interested in the truth or falsity of those accounts why need we trouble ourselves about them?

|Yours, &c, A. KNEELAND.|

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Much esteemed friend, -- The desire you express of attempting those researches which seem necessary to promote the further attainment of moral truth, is appreciated as truly laudable; and did I feel myself adequate to your wishes, I should enjoy a peculiar felicity in complying with your request. But so far from this I am very sensible that the magnitude of the general subject which you have introduced, requires to be investigated by abilities far superior to those possessed by me, and demands a tribute from resources not within my possession. However, as you have imposed an obligation on me by the communication which is here acknowledged, I will make a feeble attempt to suggest a few reflections relative to the main subjects of your epistle, which if they do nothing more, will return merited acknowledgements and plead the necessity of calling to your assistance abilities more promising.

While I view the advances which are making in the knowledge of the arts and sciences, with the pleasure of which you speak, I am apprehensive that the propensity |to chain down the human mind to its present attainments, and thereby prevent all further improvements,| relative to moral truth, may have its rise in a principle, which, so far from being inimical to man, is, in its general tendency, incalculably beneficial. No desire is entertained to justify all the zeal and all the means which are employed to prevent the free exercise of the human mind, in its researches after divine knowledge, and to retard the influx of that light which would prove unfavourable to doctrines which have little more than prescription for their support; but it seems reasonable to make a proper distinction between what may be called a salutary principle in the human mind, and a wrong application or an erroneous indulgence of it. The principle referred to, inclines us not only to hold in the highest veneration any improvements which we have made, but also to retain such acquisitions in their purity. Now it is believed that what you complain of, has its rise from the foregoing causes, and is nothing more than a wrong or an erroneous indulgence of a natural desire which in its general tendency is advantageous. Nothing is more incident to man, than to misapply his desires, and to overate his reasonable duty. But it is at the same time believed that a remedy of such defects which should consist in the destruction of those principles which are improperly acted on, would be worse than the disorder. And now the thought strikes me, that the way by which we account for the improprieties which have just been traced up to their causes, will as charitably account for what seems to incite you to aim a fatal stroke at a fabric which has its foundation in the immovable principles of our moral nature, and which, though through the wanderings of the human mind, may have not a little hay, wood and stubble, yet possess too much gold, silver and precious stones, to be forsaken as a pile of rubbish.

It gives you |pain to see what time and money, what labour and toil have been expended and are still expending in plodding over as it were an old dead letter; to learn languages which exist no where only on paper, barely for the sake of reading the opinions of other men who lived in other times,| &c. But you allow that all this would be necessary if |the only revelation of God to man, which was ever recorded on vellum or paper was written partly in Greek and partly in Hebrew,| and that |the will of God cannot be known only through the medium of those languages.| In this last particular, you express what appears very reasonable, and I presume you would be willing to consent to all this expense and toil, even if the proposition were to lose part of its importance, and it were only contended that God had actually made a revelation to man, which was written originally partly in Greek and partly in the Hebrew, without saying that he has never caused a revelation to be written originally in any other language.

A revelation from God, if it were written only in the Hebrew or Greek, would be considered of sufficient value to recompence the labour of learning the language. But you contend that this revelation, if real, can be translated into English, but, you must allow that to translate it, the original must be learned first. Will you say, that after the translation is once made, the original is of no more use? How then are future ages to determine whether they have not been imposed on? Suppose no person of the present age understood the languages in which the scriptures were first written, surely in this case, those languages would be lost beyond recovery. Suppose then it should be doubted whether our bible was not a fabrication, written originally not in Hebrew nor in Greek, but in some more modern language, how could the suggestion be refuted?

You appear to be perplexed with the disagreement of authors, as commentators, and I presume, critics on the original text; you speak on this subject, as if it were too much for patience to endure. Now, dear brother, I confess I feel very differently on this subject. I feel a devout, a religious gratitude to him whose wisdom is foolishness in the sight of too many of my fellow creatures. I view the very thing of which you complain, as that fire and crucible which have preserved the written testimony from any considerable corruptions. This is a subject on which volumes might be written to the instruction and edification of the disciples of Jesus.

The queries which you state concerning a revelation's being made in one age and not in another, in one nation and not in another, in one language, and not in another, if a special revelation were necessary, &c. are not considered as very weighty objections to the doctrine of the scriptures. I believe you will allow that our species of being commenced on this earth in a different way than that by which it has been continued. But why should the Creator, create a man and a woman at one time, and not at all times when he sees fit to multiply his rational creatures? It is not only evident that God saw that the laws of procreation were sufficient to perpetuate man, and to multiply his rational offspring, but it is likewise apparent that the connexions, relations, and harmonies of society are principally built on this law. So I humbly conceive, that the continuance and propagation of a divine revelation are even as well secured by the means which have been employed for that purpose, as if the Almighty had in every age, and in every country made such a revelation, and moreover, it is likewise apparent, that the mental labours necessary in obtaining a knowledge of these divine things greatly contribute to their enjoyment, and render the christian fellowship, faith and hope peculiarly interesting and edifying. Here again I can only suggest a subject on which voluminous writings might be profitable.

You seem to entertain an idea that the historical part of the bible can be of no importance to you, as it has no connexion with your present or future happiness. You instance the particulars of Daniel's being cast into the den of lions, and Jonah's being swallowed by the fish, &c. As these are circumstances in the history of that nation which continues a comment on, and an evidence of prophesy, they are too interesting to be dispensed with. If you could produce the decree of a powerful monarch, sent into all parts of his dominions, which was occasioned by |Remus and Romulus' being nursed by a she wolf,| the case would bear some marks of a parallel. Profane authors advert to such events as sufficient support of any fact which they endeavor to maintain.

I come now to your main object. Speaking in regard to the credibility of what is written by profane authors, and of that which is recorded in the scriptures, you ask -- |Must not our own reason finally determine for ourselves whether or not either be true?| To this I reply in the affirmative; but then reason must have its means and its evidences. For instance, I read of the death and resurrection of the man Christ Jesus, I consider this vastly important event as it stands in connexion with the evidences which support it, and reason is the eye with which I examine these evidences, and when reason is constrained to say all these circumstances could never have existed unless the fact were true, it is then I am a believer in Jesus. But if I must consider the resurrection disconnected from the evidence, reason has nothing to do with it. Please to accept these hasty remarks, not as an answer, but as suggestions which may lead to one, and as a testimony of my respect and esteem.

Yours, &c. H. BALLOU.

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