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THE CHRISTIAN REVIEW.
RELIGION OF THE BIBLE. Religion of the Bible, in Select Discourses. By THOMAS
H. SKINNER. New York. 1839.
It was with elevated expectations, that we took up this volume from the pen of Dr. Skinner. To say that we lay it down without disappointment, would be saying too little; we can affirm truly, that our anticipations have all been fulfilled, and more than fulfilled by the perusal. We know not when it has fallen to our lot to read a book which has afforded us so much pleasure, and which we feel that we can commend so fully and cordially to the attention of every class of our readers. The name of the author himself cannot but secure it a favorable reception with those who have ever heard his voice in the sanctuary, and are acquainted with the style of his public ministrations. We are happy to know, that there are not a few, to whom the writer is thus favorably known; and, as we cannot doubt that all such will turn with eagerness to the pages of this work, so we are sure, that it will be more their own fault than that of the work itself, if it does not impart to them views, and produce on them impressions, which shall make them wiser and better, so long as they live.
But the influence of these discourses should not be restricted to limits even thus extensive. The voice of a speaker, however widely it may have been heard, can yet be heard by few, in comparison with those whom
VOL. IV.—NO. XIII.
the printed page may reach. Nor, again, while it is impossible that words merely spoken should fall upon the ears of all, is it by any means certain, that they will be universally read, because the press has brought them before the public. Even this mode of disseminating truth has its limits: and these, while imposed in part by the necessity of the case are to some extent imposed also by causes which need not exist. One of these so naturally suggests itself under the circumstances, in which we write, that we would just allude to it, as we pass on, and make it the subject of one or two remarks.
It is undeniable, that even religious works of great value make but slow progress, in obtaining currency and favor, beyond the limits of the denomination in which they are produced. It is natural, and we hesitate not to add, proper, for us to give the preference to those writers, who sympathize with us in all our views of truth, and who, from this coincidence, command so much more fully our confidence, and thus acquire a power over us, which enables them to benefit us in a higher degree. To a reasonable preference of this nature, no one can object; so far from condemning it, we would cherish it ourselves, and commend it in others. But there is an excess of this feeling, which is too apt to spring from it, that is a very different quality. Carried to an extreme, it loses entirely the merit of its origin, and develops a spirit bordering but too closely upon prejudice and bigotry. A proneness to this excess is not, so far as we know, the characteristic of one sect more than of another: it would seem to be a tendency of human nature itself. It is a principle of universal operation; and goes far to explain what we believe to be well nigh a universal fact; and that is, that valuable works, not at all sectarian or polemic in their character, but purely practical in their aim and spirit, are often so imperfectly known to Christians of a different religious persuasion from their authors. In this remark we have reference more especially to contemporary works of this class; for in regard to those which have been for a long time before the public, and which possess a very decided merit, it is of course impossible that they should not, however restricted at first, gradually enlarge the sphere of their circulation, and at length win their way to universal favor. Thus no one, we suppose, reads the Pilgrim's Progress with less readiness or profit, because Bunyan was a Baptist, or Taylor's Holy Living, or Edwards on the Affections, because the one was an Episcopalian, and the other a Congregationalist. The success of such productions may be delayed, indeed, but cannot be prevented. Give them time, and they will triumph over the strongest prejudices which sectarianism can array against them.
But such writings, it should be remembered, furnish but a small part of the religious reading of the times. The present taste, as well in this as every other department of authorship, would seem to be to read those first who have published last; and then, to speak of what is true rather than of what is desirable or wise, it is to the labors of living writers that we are indebted, so far as regards the agency of the press, for nearly all our means of moral excitement. As applied to these writers, the remark we just now made is certainly true, and in this application we make it again. There is, we say, too great a disposition among Christians to limit their knowledge of the religious publications of the day to those of their own sect. They restrict themselves too much to such books as have their origin among themselves. They take too little pains to become acquainted with those which appear elsewhere, receive them with distrust and reserve, and seem often barely to submit, as it were, to be benefited by them. Does any one question this? With as much reason might he, in our opinion, question the existence of sectarianism itself: for that it should manifest itself in this form, is no more strange, surely, than that it should appear in any other. That Christendom is yet free from a sectarian spirit, no one will pretend; of course, it still exists and operates, and we have no doubt that this of which we are speaking is one of the ways in which it causes its power to be felt. We believe that one of the first, we are sure one of the most important, effects of its utter extinction will be, that mind will then have fewer obstacles to encounter, in giving free circulation to its thoughts,—that it will overleap with less difficulty those barriers, which separate so widely the various bodies of evangelical Christians, who yet, in reality, differ from each other in so few respects; nay, more, that those barriers themselves will be broken down, so that the writers of one religious denomination shall have ready access to the members of every other, and no longer be compelled to sacrifice “ to party, what was meant for mankind.”
It is obvious to remark, that a book assuming such a title as Religion of the Bible, ought, at least, to be written in such a spirit as to commend it to general acceptance. In this respect, the name which Dr. Skinner has chosen pledges him to nothing which he has not fully done. A volume of religious discourses, containing more of what is fundamental to Christianity, and less of what is extraneous or sectarian, we know not where to find. Those topics in which the true disciples of Christ may disagree, are all excluded; and those only discussed and enforced, in which they have a common interest, and from which spring the obligations which they all acknowledge. If in omitting topics such as those connected with the external ordinances of the gospel, he has not attempted to give the whole religion of the Bible, yet such views as he has chosen to present, are indisputably supported by the authority of that sacred volume.
As was natural, the author dedicates the volume,-he does it in a single brief sentence,-to the people of his charge; and we thus learn that he is pastor of a Presbyterian church; but, aside from this, did we not know what his denominational connection is from other sources, we could never have known it at all, from the contents of the book itself. In short, we are prepared to say, that the writer has fulfilled his intention, as expressed in the preface, and that “the reader will find, in the pieces composing this volume, nothing incongenial with the spiritual feelings and sympathies of all true Christians; nothing which will not, if he is a spiritual man, tend to his advancement in spirituality; and, if he is a worldly man, tend to make him a spiritual one. In perusing the book, he will not once find his thoughts conversant with a subject, which he himself will regard as a matter of doubtful disputation, or as among the uncertainties of religion, or as pertaining to those peculiarities, whether of doctrine, practice or spirit, which have given Christians different names, and have divided them into contending schools and sects.”
The discourses which are here presented to the public have not exactly the form of sermons, although we presume that they were originally written as such, and have
been addressed to religious assemblies. We have met before with nearly all of them in the different publications of the day; and it is owing to the fact, that they are now reprinted from these publications, to which they would have been less adapted, as composed in the first instance, that they appear in their present character. We do not see that the reason for this change has any application to the discourses, as they stand in this collection; and should have been better pleased, had they been restored to their original form. So also it appeared to the author himself; when, however, it was no longer in his power to make the correction, and he could only, as an approximation to it, insert in the table of contents a list of the passages which were used as texts.
It is in the light of sermons, however, that we are to regard these discourses, whether we consider their origin as called forth by the exigences of the pulpit, or in fact their construction, notwithstanding the slight defect, to which we have just adverted. And it is in this light, that we wish them to be regarded. They are the legitimate fruit of the Christian ministry; and the honor, which they are calculated to reflect upon it, should not be diminished by their being dissociated from it. This volume of Dr. Skinner, in our judgment of it, stands in the very first rank of the class of productions to which it belongs. Happier specimens of the true effective style of pulpit discourses have seldom been penned or preached. They are distinguished for that rare union of qualities, which gives them power over minds of every degree of culture. They satisfy almost every demand of the most rigid literary criticism, and, at the same time, are adapted to make a strong impression on those who are least qualified to judge critically of such performances. To the finish of elaborate composition, without its stiffness, they add much of the directness and energy of unpremeditated discourse, with none of its inelegance and looseness. We were much struck, in reading them, with the power of our language, as adapted to the expression of religious ideas. They furnish a striking illustration of the sufficiency and richness of its stores in this respect. We see from them, that the inculcations of the pulpit may be in the highest degree evangelical and spiritual, and yet be conveyed in