Religion the Only Basis of Society – Channing

This essay appeared in the Eclectic Fourth Reader of The Original McGuffey’s Series and also in McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader, available free at Gutenberg here (pdf file).  It gives some interesting food for thought.

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~William Ellery Channing (b. 1780, d. 1842), an eminent divine and orator, was born at Newport, R.I. He graduated from Harvard with the highest honors in 1798, and, in 1803, he was made pastor of the Federal Street Church, Boston, with which he maintained his connection until his death. Towards the close of his life, being much enfeebled, he withdrew almost entirely from his pastoral duties, and devoted himself to literature. Dr. Channing’s writings are published in six volumes, and are mainly devoted to theology.

1. Religion is a social concern; for it operates powerfully on society, contributing in various ways to its stability and prosperity.   Religion is not merely a private affair; the community is deeply interested in its diffusion; for it is the best support of the virtues and principles, on which the social order rests. Pure and undefiled religion is to do good; and it follows, very plainly, that if God be the Author and Friend of society, then, the recognition of him must enforce all social duty, and enlightened piety must give its whole strength to public order.

2. Few men suspect, perhaps no man comprehends, the extent of the support given by religion to every virtue. No man, perhaps, is aware how much our moral and social sentiments are fed from this fountain; how powerless conscience would become without the belief of a God; how palsied would be human benevolence, were there not the sense of a higher benevolence to quicken and sustain it; how suddenly the whole social fabric would quake, and with what a fearful crash it would sink into hopeless ruin, were the ideas of a Supreme Being, of accountableness and of a future life to be utterly erased from every mind.

3. And, let men thoroughly believe that they are the work and sport of chance; that no superior intelligence concerns itself with human affairs; that all their improvements perish forever at death; that the weak have no guardian, and the injured no avenger; that there is no recompense for sacrifices to uprightness and the public good; that an oath is unheard in heaven; that secret crimes have no witness but the perpetrator; that human existence has no purpose, and human virtue no unfailing friend; that this brief life is everything to us, and death is total, everlasting extinction; once let them thoroughly abandon religion, and who can conceive or describe the extent of the desolation which would follow?

4. We hope, perhaps, that human laws and natural sympathy would hold society together. As reasonably might we believe that were the sun quenched in the heavens, our torches would illuminate, and our fires quicken and fertilize the creation. What is there in human nature to awaken respect and tenderness, if man is the unprotected insect of a day? And what is he more, if atheism be true?

5. Erase all thought and fear of God from a community, and selfishness and sensuality would absorb the whole man. Appetite, knowing no restraint, and suffering, having no solace or hope, would trample in scorn on the restraints of human laws. Virtue, duty, principle,  would be mocked and spurned as unmeaning sounds. A sordid self-interest would supplant every feeling; and man would become, in fact, what the theory in atheism declares him to be,–a companion for brutes.

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