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Pages from an Old Volume of Life
by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (The Physician and Poet not the Jurist)
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But what is the trivial, temporal accident of the wiping out of a planet and its inhabitants to the infinite catastrophe which shall establish a mighty world of eternal despair? And which is it most desirable for mankind to have disproved or weakened, the grounds of the threat of M. Babinet, or those of the other infinitely more terrible comminations, so far as they rest on the authority of Jonathan Edwards?

The writer of this paper had been long engaged in the study of the writings of Edwards, with reference to the essay he had in contemplation, when, on speaking of the subject to a very distinguished orthodox divine, this gentleman mentioned the existence of a manuscript of Edwards which had been held back from the public on account of some opinions or tendencies it contained, or was suspected of containing "High Arianism" was the exact expression he used with reference to it. On relating this fact to an illustrious man of science, whose name is best known to botanists, but is justly held in great honor by the orthodox body to which he belongs, it appeared that he, too, had heard of such a manuscript, and the questionable doctrine associated with it in his memory was Sabellianism. It was of course proper in the writer of an essay on Jonathan Edwards to mention the alleged existence of such a manuscript, with reference to which the same caution seemed to have been exercised as that which led, the editor of his collected works to suppress the language Edwards had used about children.

This mention led to a friendly correspondence between the writer and one of the professors in the theological school at Andover, and finally to the publication of a brief essay, which, for some reason, had been withheld from publication for more than a century. Its title is "Observations concerning the Scripture OEconomy of the Trinity and Covenant of Redemption. By Jonathan Edwards." It contains thirty-six pages and a half, each small page having about two hundred words. The pages before the reader will be found to average about three hundred and twenty-five words. An introduction and an appendix by the editor, Professor Egbert C. Smyth, swell the contents to nearly a hundred pages, but these additions, and the circumstance that it is bound in boards, must not lead us to overlook the fact that the little volume is nothing more than a pamphlet in book's clothing.

A most extraordinary performance it certainly is, dealing with the arrangements entered into by the three persons of the Trinity, in as bald and matter-of-fact language and as commercial a spirit as if the author had been handling the adjustment of a limited partnership between three retail tradesmen. But, lest a layman's judgment might be considered insufficient, the treatise was submitted by the writer to one of the most learned of our theological experts,—the same who once informed a church dignitary, who had been attempting to define his theological position, that he was a Eutychian,—a fact which he seems to have been no more aware of than M. Jourdain was conscious that he had been speaking prose all his life. The treatise appeared to this professor anti-trinitarian, not in the direction of Unitarianism, however, but of Tritheism. Its anthropomorphism affected him like blasphemy, and the paper produced in him the sense of "great disgust," which its whole character might well excite in the unlearned reader.

All this is, however, of little importance, for this is not the work of Edwards referred to by the present writer in his previous essay. The tract recently printed as a volume may be the one referred to by Dr. Bushnell, in 1851, but of this reference by him the writer never heard until after his own essay was already printed. The manuscript of the "Observations" was received by Professor Smyth, as he tells us in his introduction, about fifteen years ago, from the late Reverend William T. Dwight, D. D., to whom it was bequeathed by his brother, the Reverend Dr. Sereno E. Dwight.

But the reference of the present writer was to another production of the great logician, thus spoken of in a quotation from "the accomplished editor of the Hartford 'Courant,'" to be found in Professor Smyth's introduction:

"It has long been a matter of private information that Professor Edwards A. Park, of Andover, had in his possession an published manuscript of Edwards of considerable extent, perhaps two thirds as long as his treatise on the will. As few have ever seen the manuscript, its contents are only known by vague reports.... It is said that it contains a departure from his published views on the Trinity and a modification of the view of original sin. One account of it says that the manuscript leans toward Sabellianism, and that it even approaches Pelagianism."

It was to this "suppressed" manuscript the present writer referred, and not to the slender brochure recently given to the public. He is bound, therefore, to say plainly that to satisfy inquirers who may be still in doubt with reference to Edwards's theological views, it would be necessary to submit this manuscript, and all manuscripts of his which have been kept private, to their inspection, in print, if possible, so that all could form their own opinion about it or them.

The whole matter may be briefly stated thus: Edwards believed in an eternity of unimaginable horrors for "the bulk of mankind." His authority counts with many in favor of that belief, which affects great numbers as the idea of ghosts affected Madame de Stall: "Je n'y crois pas, mais je les crains." This belief is one which it is infinitely desirable to the human race should be shown to be possibly, probably, or certainly erroneous. It is, therefore, desirable in the interest of humanity that any force the argument in its favor may derive from Edwards's authority should be weakened by showing that he was capable of writing most unwisely, and if it should be proved that he changed his opinions, or ran into any "heretical" vagaries, by using these facts against the validity of his judgment. That he was capable of writing most unwisely has been sufficiently shown by the recent publication of his "Observations." Whether he, anywhere contradicted what were generally accepted as his theological opinions, or how far he may have lapsed into heresies, the public will never rest satisfied until it sees and interprets for itself everything that is open to question which may be contained in his yet unpublished manuscripts. All this is not in the least a personal affair with the writer, who, in the course of his studies of Edwards's works, accidentally heard, from the unimpeachable sources sufficiently indicated, the reports, which it seems must have been familiar to many, that there was unpublished matter bearing on the opinions of the author through whose voluminous works he had been toiling. And if he rejoiced even to hope that so wise a man as Edwards has been considered, so good a man as he is recognized to have been, had, possibly in his changes of opinion, ceased to think of children as vipers, and of parents as shouting hallelujahs while their lost darlings were being driven into the flames, where is the theologian who would not rejoice to hope so with him or who would be willing to tell his wife or his daughter that he did not?

The real, vital division of the religious part of our Protestant communities is into Christian optimists and Christian pessimists. The Christian optimist in his fullest development is characterized by a cheerful countenance, a voice in the major key, an undisguised enjoyment of earthly comforts, and a short confession of faith. His theory of the universe is progress; his idea of God is that he is a Father with all the true paternal attributes, of man that he is destined to come into harmony with the key-note of divine order, of this earth that it is a training school for a better sphere of existence. The Christian pessimist in his most typical manifestation is apt to wear a solemn aspect, to speak, especially from the pulpit, in the minor key, to undervalue the lesser enjoyments of life, to insist on a more extended list of articles of belief. His theory of the universe recognizes this corner of it as a moral ruin; his idea of the Creator is that of a ruler whose pardoning power is subject to the veto of what is called "justice;" his notion of man is that he is born a natural hater of God and goodness, and that his natural destiny is eternal misery. The line dividing these two great classes zigzags its way through the religious community, sometimes following denominational layers and cleavages, sometimes going, like a geological fracture, through many different strata. The natural antagonists of the religious pessimists are the men of science, especially the evolutionists, and the poets. It was but a conditioned prophecy, yet we cannot doubt what was in Milton's mind when he sang, in one of the divinest of his strains, that

"Hell itself will pass away, And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day."

And Nature, always fair if we will allow her time enough, after giving mankind the inspired tinker who painted the Christian's life as that of a hunted animal, "never long at ease," desponding, despairing, on the verge of self-murder,—painted it with an originality, a vividness, a power and a sweetness, too, that rank him with the great authors of all time,—kind Nature, after this gift, sent as his counterpoise the inspired ploughman, whose songs have done more to humanize the hard theology of Scotland than all the rationalistic sermons that were ever preached. Our own Whittier has done and is doing the same thing, in a far holier spirit than Burns, for the inherited beliefs of New England and the country to which New England belongs. Let me sweeten these closing paragraphs of an essay not meaning to hold a word of bitterness with a passage or two from the lay-preacher who is listened to by a larger congregation than any man who speaks from the pulpit. Who will not hear his words with comfort and rejoicing when he speaks of "that larger hope which, secretly cherished from the times of Origen and Duns Scotus to those of Foster and Maurice, has found its fitting utterance in the noblest poem of the age?"

It is Tennyson's "In Memoriam" to which he refers, and from which he quotes four verses, of which this is the last:

"Behold! we know not anything I can but trust that good shall fall At last,—far off,—at last, to all, And every winter change to spring."

If some are disposed to think that the progress of civilization and the rapidly growing change of opinion renders unnecessary any further effort to humanize "the Gospel of dread tidings;" if any believe the doctrines of the Longer and Shorter Catechism of the Westminster divines are so far obsolete as to require no further handling; if there are any who thank these subjects have lost their interest for living souls ever since they themselves have learned to stay at home on Sundays, with their cakes and ale instead of going to meeting,—not such is Mr. Whittier's opinion, as we may infer from his recent beautiful poem, "The Minister's Daughter." It is not science alone that the old Christian pessimism has got to struggle with, but the instincts of childhood, the affections of maternity, the intuitions of poets, the contagious humanity of the philanthropist,—in short, human nature and the advance of civilization. The pulpit has long helped the world, and is still one of the chief defences against the dangers that threaten society, and it is worthy now, as it always has been in its best representation, of all love and honor. But many of its professed creeds imperatively demand revision, and the pews which call for it must be listened to, or the preacher will by and by find himself speaking to a congregation of bodiless echoes by and by find himself speaking to a congregation of bodiless echoes.

THE END

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