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RELIGION is the knowledge of the relation existing between us and God, with the observance of the duties thence resulting. It is intellectual and practical. The mind must be informed of the nature of the relation which exists between man and his God, that the duties arising from this relation may be duly performed. And the performance of these duties constitutes the great business of human life.
The relation existing between us and our God, cannot be understood, without some correct views both of the divine character and our own. God must be known, as a being infinite and eternal, possessed of every moral excellence, as our Creator, as the author of all our blessings, as our holy Redeemer and Judge. There must also, be a knowledge of ourselves, as moral and immortal beings, as capable of serving and pleasing God. These truths being understood, the obligations of obedience, of love, of trust in God, are easily perceived. Without a knowledge of the reasonableness of these duties, it is not to be expected they will ever be performed.
Much has been said on the subject of Natural Religion, including those truths which, it is supposed, may be known concerning God and moral duty, without any revelation from heaven. Our reasonings upon this subject must be very uncertain. The experiment has never been made, and never can be. There has never been any portion of mankind wholly destitute of a knowledge of those divine truths which God has made known to man by his own immediate testimony. The true LIGHT (the Lord Jesus lighteth every man that cometh into the world. The knowledge of the divine character, and the fundamental principles of moral truth, early made known to the ancient patriarchs, can never be wholly obliterated from the minds of their posterity. God made known his will to mankind, in various ways, from age to age, previous to the times of the prophets of Israel. Many of these early revelations, we have reason to believe, are not recorded in the volume of divine truth. Job and his friends, as well as many others, understood the first principles of the divine character and of moral truth, previous to the time of Moses. The Church of God, always the depository of revealed truth, has ever been so situated as to afford the greatest facilities of intercourse with the various nations and tribes of
Though we know but little from facts of what the human mind could discover in the researches of moral truth, without
the aid of divine revelation, it is not to be doubted that the works of creation and providence afford evidence, if justly perceived, of the essential perfections of God, and of the fundamental principles of moral obligation. Yet, through the defects of a darkened understanding, perverted by the corruptions of the heart, this evidence is but imperfectly discerned, and the truth poorly understood.
We thus perceive the necessity of a full revelation from God, to teach us his character and our own, to learn us our duties to him and our fellow men, and to make known our privileges, our hopes, and prospects. Such a revelation he has given, through the medium of prophets and apostles, and has not left the world without a witness, in addition to the benevolence of his works, that he is indeed GOOD.
Various and multiplied are the systems of religion that have prevailed and still exist among mankind. Sceptical minds have greatly exulted in this fact, and have attempted to deduce from it a favourite conclusion, that religion itself has no higher origin than the interests and fancies of men. The correct conclusion, however, from this fact, must be directly the reverse. From a just view of the human character, we have no right to believe man would have any religion at all, had it not been originally taught from heaven. The earliest records of nations clearly prove that the most ancient religion of mankind was the worship of one God. This preceded all idolatry. The most famous divinities of India, Egypt, and Greece, were deified men, heroes, founders of cities, and public benefactors, consecrated, after their death, by the affection and pride of their countrymen, to the privileges of celestial beings. Most people, however, constantly acknowledge a supreme invisible God, superior to their favorite deities, and not degraded, like them, by the vices and passions of men. The most ancient idolatry was far less absurd than that which received the improvement and refinement of later times.
In giving our readers a view of the various religions and religious ceremonies which prevail among mankind, it is necessary to consider the false as well as the true. Or, to speak in milder terms, those which are the least conformable to truth, as well as those which are the most consistent with the divine precepts. While it is probable there is no religious community wholly destitute of errors, still, as all religion had its origin in the revealed will of God, we may hope there is no religious system without some mixture of truth.
Our attention will naturally be directed, in the first place, to Christianity. Not only because it is the religion of the true God, and the only one established upon the basis of his revealed truth, but as it is professed by a greater portion of mankind than any other, including all the most enlightened nations of the world. Judaism may perhaps be thought to deserve a prior consideration, as this is more ancient than Christianity, and also of divine authority. But Judaism has now, in a great measure,
ceased to exist, and has become emerged in the religion of Christ, as it was designed to be, and cannot hold a very important place, though it will deserve a distinct consideration in the progress of this work. Christianity is built upon the foundation of prophets, (Jews) as well as apostles, Jesus Christ being, of the whole, the chief corner stone.
CHRISTIANITY is the religion of all who believe in Christ Jesus as the Saviour of men, and receive the holy scriptures as the word of God. This religion is professed by the people of all Christian countries, and recognized by their various usuages and laws. The professors of Christianity are divided into a great number of different classes and denominations. From this fact, which the mysterious providence of God has always suffered to exist, the enemies of this religion have contended that it cannot be ascertained what Christianity is they say that different denominations describe it in a very different manner, each pronouncing others to be wrong. The difference of sentiment among the various classes of professing Christians is, indeed, much to be regretted; yet this difference has always been magnified by the enemies of righteousness, and is, in reality, much less than has been commonly supposed. Good men, of all Christian churches, whenever they become acquainted, always find that they can truly call each other brethren. The difference which has existed in the separate portions of the Christian church has generally consisted in objects of, comparatively, minor importance, and not in the essential principles and practices of Christianity. No greater difference in sentiment, in practice, in feeling, has ever existed between any extensive portions of Christendom_than between Catholics and Protestants. And yet, when the Protestants separated from the Catholic church, with a commotion which convulsed the world, they called the change no more than a Reformation. They considered themselves as remaining on their former basis, though divers alterations and improvements were necessary to be made.
In looking over the numerous Creeds and Confessions of Faith formed in different ages and countries, it is very interesting to the friends of righteousness, to perceive a general coincidence of sentiment in all the fundamental principles of divine truth. Differences in minor things are indefinitely numerous, while the leading features of the Christian system are almost universally maintained.
The following things have been acknowledged as fundamental principles, by the professed friends of Christ, with few exceptions, in all ages of the Church. The divine authority of the Holy Scriptures, salvation by the righteousness of Christ, the perfection of the Saviour's character, the necessity of holy obedience to the divine commandments, the resurrection of the dead, the general judgment, the eternal happiness and misery of the righteous and the wicked, the Christian Sabbath, and the Christian Sacraments.
These are the essential principles of our holy religion, and all who cordially receive and observe them may be considered as resting upon the Rock of the divine salvation.
While we take this general survey of the Christian world, and find our high obligations of gratitude to God, it is not to be forgotten that it is divided into a number of different classes, alienated, to a considerable degree, from each other, not less from a want of intercourse and correct information, than from real differences in sentiment and practice. A just view of these is necessary to a correct knowledge of the various religions of the world, and may have a tendency to promote that charity which is the bond of perfectness. In an attempt to present such a view to our readers, the Catholic Church, on account of its antiqiuty, its numbers, and various other considerations, will deserve the first attention. The Greek Church, indeed, claims a priority in the time of its existence, yet, for the reasons mentioned, and the deeper interest felt by Americans in the Catholic Church, we conclude to give that the first place in the following work.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.
CATHOLIC, denotes any thing that is universal or general. The rise of heresies induced the primitive Christian church to assume the appellation of Catholic, being a characteristic term to distinguish itself from all sects, who, though they had party names, sometimes sheltered themselves under the common name of Christians. The Romish church now distinguishes itself by the term Catholic, in opposition to all who have separated from her communion, and whom she considers as heretics and schismatics.
This denomination of Christians has existed under one form or other, from a very early period of the Christian church. They tell us, that they are as old as Christianity; that their first bishop was St. Peter, who, they add, was first bishop of Rome; and they assume to trace their several bishops in direct succession from the apostles down to the present time.
Their first bishop belonging to what they call the see of Rome, they, after the lapse of some time, adopted the adjunct Roman to their other appellation of Catholic or Universal. But since the reformation in the 16th century, this sect has been designated by various names by their enemies: Papists, Romanists, &c. These being considered terms of reproach by these Christians, we shall carefully avoid applying them; preferring the use of that appellation which cannot possibly give offence; and by which they are, in fact, now recognized in modern statute-books.
Speaking of their church generally, the Roman Catholics. describe it as one, holy, Catholic and apostolic ;-First, because its doctrines and worship are the same all over the world; Secondly, because all its doctrines, rites, and observances tend to holiness; but more especially, as the church is infallible, and cannot fall into error of any kind, being kept and upheld by the power of Jesus Christ, who presides over the whole community of the faithful; invisibly, by his grace and special providence; and visibly, by his successors, the Bishops or Popes of Rome, who are Christ's vicars on earth, the descendants of St. Peter, and the successors of the apostles; Thridly, this church is Catholic, because of its universality at one time, though now somewhat distracted by the great Protestant schism