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The Public Square

Benjamin Franklin on Humility and Disagreement

Go My list of virtues contained at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud, that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation, that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances, I determined to endeavor to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest; and I added humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word. ¶ I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion; such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted instead of them, I conceive, I comprehend, or I imagine, a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but that in the present case there "appeared" or "seemed to me" some difference, etc. The conversation I engaged in went on more pleasantly; the modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

George Washington on Freedom of Conscience

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The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support … May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the Father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths and make us all in our several vocations useful here and, in His own due time and way, everlastingly happy.

Edmund Burke on Dissension for its Own Sake

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It is somewhat remarkable that this reverend divine should be so earnest for setting up new churches, and so perfectly indifferent concerning the doctrine which may be taught in them. His zeal is of a curious character. It is not for the propagation of his own opinions, but of any opinions. It is not for the diffusion of truth, but for the spreading of contradiction. Let the noble teachers but dissent, it is no matter from whom or from what.

Edmund Burke on Politics in the Pulpit

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Supposing, however, that something like moderation were visible in this political sermon; yet politics and the pulpit are terms that have little agreement. No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity. The cause of civil liberty and civil government gains as little as that of religion by this confusion of duties. Those who quit their proper character, to assume what does not belong to them, are, for the greater part, ignorant both of the character they leave, and of the character they assume. Wholly unacquainted with the world in which they are so fond of meddling, and inexperienced in all its affairs, on which they pronounce with so much confidence, they have nothing of politics but the passions they excite. Surely the church is a place where one day’s truce ought to be allowed to the dissensions and animosities of mankind.

A Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments

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In 1784, a bill was before the House of Delegates of Virginia for a publick Act, “establishing a provision for the teachers of the Christian religion,” which had for its object the compelling of every person to contribute to some religious teacher. The bill was postponed to the next session of the legislature and ordered to be printed, and the people were requested to signify their opinion respecting its adoption. Among the numerous remonstrances against the passage of this bill, the following one drawn by Mr. Madison, stands pre-eminent. It is certainly one of the ablest productions of that great statesman, and deserves to be widely circulated. To use the language of the authour of the work from which it is extracted — Benedict’s “General History of the Baptist denomination in America,” — its “style is elegant and perspicuous and for strength of reasoning and purity of principle, it has seldom been equalled, certainly never surpassed, by anything on the subject in the English language.” It is hardly necessary to say that the bill never passed the House. ~ Hartford Times

An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom

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Thomas Jefferson drafted The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1779 three years after he wrote the Declaration of Independence. The act was not passed by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia until 1786. Jefferson was by then in Paris as the U.S. Ambassador to France. The  Act was resisted by a group headed by Patrick Henry who sought to pass a bill that would have assessed all the citizens of Virginia to support a plural establishment. James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments was, and remains, a powerful argument against state supported religion. It was written in 1785, just a few months before the General Assembly passed Jefferson’s religious freedom bill.

David Hume on Enemies of Liberty

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In all ages of the world, priests have been enemies to liberty; and it is certain, that this steady conduct of theirs must have been founded on fixed reasons of interest and ambition. Liberty of thinking, and of expressing our thoughts, is always fatal to priestly power, and to those pious frauds, on which it is commonly founded; and, by an infallible connexion, which prevails among all kinds of liberty, this privilege can never be enjoyed, at least has never yet been enjoyed, but in a free government.

David Hume on Freedom of the Press

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It is a very comfortable reflection to the lovers of liberty, that this peculiar privilege of Britain is of a kind that cannot easily be wrested from us, but must last as long as our government remains, in any degree, free and independent. It is seldom, that liberty of any kind is lost all at once. Slavery has so frightful an aspect to men accustomed to freedom, that it must steal upon them by degrees, and must disguise itself in a thousand shapes, in order to be received. But, if the liberty of the press ever be lost, it must be lost at once. The general laws against sedition and libelling are at present as strong as they possibly can be made. Nothing can impose a farther restraint, but either the clapping an Imprimatur upon the press, or the giving to the court very large discretionary powers to punish whatever displeases them. But these concessions would be such a bare-faced violation of liberty, that they will probably be the last efforts of a despotic government. We may conclude, that the liberty of Britain is gone for ever when these attempts shall succeed.

A Letter Concerning Toleration

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John Locke here sets a clear purpose: “to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other”. Specifically, the concern of the state is the commonwealth, especially the protection of property, and the just use of force to that end. The concern of the church, on the other hand, is the care of souls, to which force is ill-suited. What is essential is toleration: the state’s toleration of the church, and each sect’s toleration of another. Indeed, Locke argues that the mark of any truly Christian church will be toleration; this, because of Christ’s “Gospel of peace” and of the impossibility of forced belief. “Whatever profession we make, to whatever outward worship we conform, if we are not fully satisfied in our own mind that the one is true, … such profession and such practice, far from being any furtherance, are indeed great obstacles to our salvation.” Whenever a church or minister reaches for powers of the state, the power to dispossess others of freedom or property, their true ambition is betrayed, “what they desire is temporal dominion”. State authority is also circumscribed, “The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force: but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind…” It is refreshing to see in Locke that the obvious incongruity of Christian coercion is not a recent realization. For example, Locke notes Jesus’ prediction that Christians will suffer persecution, but far be it that Christians become persecutors, to “force others by fire and sword, to embrace her faith and doctrine”. One could object to Locke’s claim that “the only business of the church is the salvation of souls”, if that in effect precludes the church working towards a just and civil society in the here and now. Nonetheless, Locke’s argument, rooted in Christian ideals and natural law, is rightly credited for the delineation of church and state authority that later emerged in America. ~ Nate

Ralph Cudworth on Truth in Love

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Let us endeavour to promote the Gospel of peace, the dovelike Gospel, with a dove-like spirit. This was the way by which the Gospel at first was propagated in the world; Christ did not cry, nor lift up His voice in the streets; a bruised reed He did not break, and the smoking flax He did not quench; and yet He brought forth judgment unto victory. He whispered the Gospel to us from Mount Zion in a still voice; and yet the sound thereof went out quickly throughout all the earth. The Gospel at first came down upon the world gently and softly, like the dew upon Gideon’s fleece; and yet it quickly soaked quite through it; and doubtless this is the most effectual way to promote it further. Sweetness and ingenuity will more command men’s minds than passion, sourness, and severity; as the soft pillow sooner breaks the flint than the hardest marble. Let us follow truth in love; and of the two, indeed, be contented rather to miss of the conveying of a speculative truth than to part with love. When we would convince men of any error by the strength of truth, let us withal pour the sweet balm of love upon their heads. Truth and love are the two most powerful things in the world; and when they both go together they cannot easily be withstood. The golden beams of truth and the silken cords of love twisted together will draw men on with a sweet violence, whether they will or no. Let us take heed we do not sometimes call that zeal for God and His Gospel which is nothing else but our own tempestuous and stormy passion. True zeal is a sweet, heavenly, and gentle flame, which maketh us active for God, but always within the sphere of love. It never calls for fire from heaven to consume those who differ a little from us in their apprehensions. It is like that kind of lightning (which the philosophers speak of) that melts the sword within, but singeth not the scabbard; it strives to save the soul, but hurteth not the body. True zeal is a loving thing, and makes us always active to edification, and not to destruction.

A Noble and Puissant Nation

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Lords and Commons of England, consider what nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governors: a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point, the highest that human capacity can soar to. Therefore the studies of Learning in her deepest sciences have been so ancient and so eminent among us, that writers of good antiquity and ablest judgment have been persuaded that even the school of Pythagoras and the Persian wisdom took beginning from the old philosophy of this island. And that wise and civil Roman, Julius Agricola, who governed once here for Csesar, preferred the natural wits of Britain before the labored studies of the French. Nor is it for nothing that the grave and frugal Transylvanian sends out yearly from as far as the mountainous borders of Russia, and beyond the Hercynian wilderness, not their youth, but their staid men, to learn our language and our theologic arts.