THE FORCE OF TRUTH
Thomas Scott (First published in 1779)
A HISTORY OF THE CHANGE WHICH HAS TAKEN PLACE IN THE AUTHOR’S SENTIMENTS: WITH THE MANNER IN WHICH, AND THE MEANS BY WHICH, IT WAS AT LENGTH EFFECTED.
In January 1774 two of my parishioners, a man and his wife, lay at the point of death. I had heard of the circumstance but according to my general custom, not being sent for, I took no notice of it; till one evening, the woman being now dead and the man dying, I heard that my neighbour Mr. Newton had been several times to visit them. Immediately my conscience reproached me with being shamefully negligent in sitting at home within a few doors of dying persons, my general hearers, and never going to visit them. Directly it occurred to me that whatever contempt I might have for Mr. N. ‘s doctrines I must acknowledge his practice to be more consistent with the ministerial character than my own. He must have more zeal and love for souls than I had or he would not have walked so far to visit and supply my lack of care to those, who, as far as I was concerned, might have been left to perish in their sins.
This reflection affected me so much that without delay and very earnestly, yea, with tears, I besought the Lord to forgive my past neglect: and I resolved thenceforth to be more attentive to this duty;
which resolution, though at first formed in ignorant dependence on my own strength, I have, by Divine grace, been enabled hitherto to keep. I went immediately to visit the survivor; and the affecting sight of one person already dead and another expiring in the same chamber, served more deeply to impress my serious convictions: so that from that time I have constantly visited the sick of my parishes as far as I have had opportunity; and have endeavoured, to the best of my knowledge, to perform that essential part of a parish minister’s duty.
Some time after this a friend recommended to my perusal the conclusion of Bishop Burnet’s “History of his Own Times,” especially that part which respects the clergy. It had the intended effect: I was considerably instructed and impressed by it; I was convinced that my entrance into the ministry had been the result of very wrong motives, was preceded by a very unsuitable preparation, and accompanied with very improper conduct. Some uneasiness was also excited in my mind concerning my neglect of the important duties of that high-calling: and, though I was enslaved by sin and too much engaged in other studies and in love with this present world to relinquish my flattering pursuit of reputation and preferment, and change the course of my life, studies, and employments; yet, by intervals, I experienced desires and purposes, at some future period, of devoting myself wholly to the work of the ministry in the manner to which he exhorts the clergy.
All these things increased the clamorous remonstrances of my conscience; and at this time I lived without any secret religion, because, without some reformation in my conduct as a man and a minister, I did not dare to pray. My convictions would no longer be silenced or appeased and they became so intolerably troublesome that I resolved to make one more effort towards amendment. In good earnest and not totally without seeking the assistance of the Lord by prayer, I now attempted to break the chains in which Satan had hitherto held my soul in bondage; and it pleased the Lord that I should obtain some considerable advantages. Part of my grosser defilements I was enabled to relinquish and to enter upon a form of devotion. Formal enough indeed it was in some respects; for I neither knew that Mediator through whom, nor that Spirit by whom, prayers are offered with acceptance unto the Father: yet, though utterly in the dark as to the true and living way to the throne of grace, I am persuaded there were even then seasons when I was enabled to rise above a mere form and to offer petitions so far spiritual as to be accepted and answered.
I was now somewhat reformed in my outward conduct; but “the renewing in the spirit of my mind,” if begun, was scarcely discernible. As my life was externally less wicked and ungodly my heart grew more proud; the idol self was the object of my adoration and obeisance; my worldly advancement was more eagerly sought than ever: some flattering prospects seemed to open and I resolved to improve my advantages to the uttermost. At the same time every thing tended to increase my good opinion of myself; I was treated with kindness and friendship by persons, from whom I had no reason to expect it; my preaching was well received, my acquaintance seemed to be courted, and my foolish heart verily believed that all this and much more was due to my superior worth:
while conscience, which, by its mortifying accusations, had been useful to preserve some sense of unworthiness in my mind, was now silenced, or seemed to authorize that pride which it had checked before. And having the disadvantage of conversing in general with persons who either favoured my sentiments, or who,
from good manners, or because they saw it would be in vain, did not contradict me; I concluded that my scheme of doctrine was the exact standard of truth and that by my superior abilities I was capable of confuting or convincing all who were otherwise minded. In this view of the matter, I felt an eager desire of entering into a religious controversy especially with a Calvinist; for many resided in the neighbourhood and I heard various reports concerning their tenets.
It was at this time that my correspondence with Mr. NÂ—Â—** commenced. At a visitation in May 1775, we exchanged a few words on a controverted subject in the room among the clergy which I believe drew many eyes upon us. At that time he prudently declined the discourse but a day or two after he sent me a short note with a little book for my perusal. This was the very thing I wanted and I gladly embraced the opportunity which, according to my wishes, seemed now to offer; God knoweth, with no inconsiderable expectations that my arguments would prove irresistibly convincing and that I should have the honour of rescuing a well-meaning person from his enthusiastical delusions.
I had indeed by this time conceived a very favourable opinion of him and a sort of respect for him; being acquainted with the character he sustained even among some persons who expressed a disapprobation of his doctrines. They were forward to commend him as a benevolent, disinterested, inoffensive person, and a laborious minister. But, on the other hand, I looked upon his religious sentiments as rank fanaticism and entertained a very contemptuous opinion of his abilities, natural and acquired. Once I had had the curiosity to hear him preach; and, not understanding his sermon, I made a very great jest of it where I could do it without giving offence. I had also read one of his publications; but, for the same reason, I thought the greater part of it whimsical, paradoxical, and unintelligible.
Concealing, therefore, the true motives of my conduct under the offer of friendship and a professed desire to know the truth, (which, amidst all my self-sufficiency and prejudice, I trust the Lord had even then given me,) with the greatest affectation of candour and of a mind open to conviction, I wrote him a long letter purposing to draw from him such an avowal and explanation of his sentiments as might introduce a controversial discussion of our religious differences.
The event by no means answered my expectation. He returned a very friendly and long answer to my letter in which he carefully avoided the mention of those doctrines which he knew would offend me. He declared that he believed me to be one who feared God and was under the teaching of the Holy Spirit; that he gladly accepted my offer of friendship and was no ways inclined to dictate to me; but that, leaving me to the guidance of the Lord, he would be glad, as occasion served, from time to time, to bear testimony to the truths of the gospel and to communicate his sentiments to me on any subject with all the confidence of friendship.
In this manner our correspondence began and it was continued in the interchange of nine or ten letters till December the same year. Throughout I held my purpose, and he his. I made use of every endeavour to draw him into controversy and filled my letters with definitions, inquiries, arguments, objections, and consequences, requiring explicit answers. He, on the other hand, shunned every thing controversial as much as possible and filled his letters with the most useful and least offensive instructions: except that now and then he dropped hints concerning the necessity, the true nature, and the efficacy of faith, and the manner in which it was to be sought and obtained; and concerning some other matters suited as he judged, to helped me forward in my inquiry after truth. But they much offended my prejudices, afforded me matter of disputation, and at that time were of little use to me.
This, however, is certain, that through the whole of the correspondence, I disputed, with all the arguments I could devise, against almost every thing which he advanced and was very much nettled at many things that he asserted. I read a great part of his letters and some books which he sent me with much indifference and contempt. I construed his declining controversy into an acknowledgment of weakness and triumphed in many companies as having confuted his arguments. And, finally, when I could not obtain my end, at my instance the correspondence was dropped.
His letters and my answers are now by me; and on a careful perusal of them, compared with all I can recollect concerning this matter, I give this as a faithful account of the correspondence. His letters will, I hope, shortly be made public, being such as promise greater advantage to others, than, through my proud, contentious spirit, I experienced from them. Mine deserve only to be forgotten, except as they are useful to me to remind me what I was and to mortify my pride; as they illustrate my friendÂ’s patience and candour in so long bearing with my ignorance and arrogance; and notwithstanding my unteachable, quarrelsome temper, continuing his benevolent labours for my good; and especially as they remind me of the goodness of God, who, though He abominates and resists the proud, yet knows how to bring down the stout heart, not only by the iron rod of His wrath, but by the golden sceptre of His grace.
Thus our correspondence and acquaintance, for the present, were almost wholly broken off; for a long time we seldom met and then only interchanged a few words on general topics of conversation. Yet he all along persevered in telling me, to my no small offence, that I should accede one day to his religious principles; that he had stood on my ground and that I should stand on his: and he constantly informed his friends, that, though slowly, I was surely feeling my way to the knowledge of the truth. So clearly could he discern the dawnings of grace in my soul amidst all the darkness of depraved nature and my obstinate rebellion to the will of God!
This expectation was principally grounded on my conduct in the following circumstances. Immediately after the commencement of
our correspondence, in May 1775, whilst my thoughts were much engrossed by some hopes of preferment; one Sunday, during the time of divine service, when the psalm was named, I opened the prayer-book to turn to it but (accidentally shall I say, or providentially?) I opened upon the articles of religion and the eighth, respecting the authority and warrant of the Athanasian creed, immediately engaged my attention. My disbelief of the doctrine of a Trinity of co-equal persons in the unity of the Godhead and my pretensions to candour had both combined to excite my hatred to this creed; for which reasons I had been accustomed to speak of it with contempt and to neglect reading it officially. No sooner, therefore, did I read the words, “That it was to be thoroughly received and believed; for that it might be proved by most certain warrants of holy scripture,” than my mind was greatly impressed and affected. The matter of subscription immediately occurred to my thoughts; and from that moment I conceived such scruples about it, that, till my view of the whole system of gospel-doctrine was entirely changed, they remained insuperable.
It is wisely said by the son of Sirach, “My son, if thou come to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for temptation.” I had twice before subscribed these articles with the same religious sentiments which I now entertained. But, conscience being asleep, and the service of the Lord no part of my concern, I considered subscription as a matter of course, a necessary form, and very little troubled myself about it. But now, though I was greatly influenced by pride, ambition, and the love of the world, yet my heart was sincerely towards the Lord and I dared not to venture on a known sin, deliberately, for the sake of temporal interest. Subscription to articles which I did not believe, paid as a price for church preferment, I began to look upon as an impious lie, a heinous guilt, that could never truly be repented of without throwing back the wages of iniquity. The more I pondered it, the more strenuously my conscience protested against it. At length, after a violent conflict between interest and conscience, I made known to my patron my scruples and my determination not to subscribe: thus my views of preferment were deliberately given up and with an increasing family I was left, as far as mere human prudence could discern, with little other prospect than that of poverty and distress. My objections to the articles were, as I now see, groundless: much self-sufficiency, undue warmth of temper, and obstinacy, were betrayed in the management of this affair, for which I ought to be humbled; but of my adherence to the dictates of my conscience and holding fast my integrity in such trying circumstances, I never did, and I trust never shall repent.
No sooner was my determination known, than I was severely censured by many of my friends. They all, I am sensible, did it from kindness and they used arguments of various kinds, none of which were suited to produce conviction. But, though I was confirmed in my resolution by the reasonings used to induce me to alter it, they at length were made instrumental in bringing me to this important
determination:Â—not so to believe what any man said, as to take it upon his authority; but to search the word of God with this single intention, to discover whether the articles of the church of England in general, and this creed in particular were, or were not, agreeable to the scriptures. I had studied them in some measure before for the sake of becoming acquainted with the original languages and in order thence to bring detached texts to support my own system; and I had a tolerable acquaintance with the historical and preceptive parts of them: but I had not searched this precious repository of divine knowledge with the express design of discovering the truth in controverted matters of doctrine. I had very rarely been troubled with suspicions that I was or might be mistaken; and I now rather thought of becoming better qualified, upon scriptural grounds, to
defend my determination, than of being led to any change of sentiments.
However, I set about the inquiry; and the first passage, as I remember, which made me suspect that I might be wrong, was James 1.5. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given
him.” On considering these words with some attention, I became conscious, that, though I had thought myself wise, yet assuredly I had obtained none of my wisdom in this manner; for I had never offered one prayer to that effect during the whole course of my life. I also perceived that this text contained a suitable direction and an encouraging promise in my present inquiry; and from this time, in
my poor manner, I began to ask God to give me this promised wisdom.
Shortly after I meditated on and preached from John 7.16,17. “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” I was surprised that I had not before attended to such remarkable words. I discovered that they contained a direction and a promise calculated to serve as a clue in extricating the sincere inquirer after truth from that labyrinth of controversy in which, at his first setting out, he is likely to be bewildered. And though my mind was too much leavened with the pride of reasoning to reap that benefit from this precious text which it is capable of affording to the soul that is humbly willing to be taught of God, yet, being conscious that I was disposed to risk every thing in doing what I thought His will, I was encouraged with the assurance, that if I were under a mistake, I should some time discover it.
I was further led to suspect that I might possibly be wrong, because I had not hitherto sought the truth in the proper manner, by attending to Proverbs 3.5,6. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart;
and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” I could not but know that I had not hitherto trusted in the Lord with all my heart, nor acknowledged Him in all my ways, nor depended on His directions in all my paths; but that, in my religious speculations, I had leaned wholly on my own understanding.
But though these and some other passages made for the present a great impression upon me and influenced me to make it a part of my daily prayers that I might be directed to a right understanding of the word of God; yet my pride and addictedness to controversy had, as some desperate disease, infected my whole soul and was not to be cured all at once. I was very far indeed from being a little child, sitting humbly and simply at the Lord’s feet to learn from Him the very first rudiments of divine knowledge. I had yet no abiding suspicion that all which I had heretofore accounted wisdom was foolishness and must be unlearned and counted loss, before I could attain to the excellency of the true knowledge of Jesus Christ: for though I began to allow it probable that in some few matters I might have been in an error, yet I still was confident that in the main my scheme of doctrine was true.
Whenever I was too straitly pressed with objections and arguments against any of my sentiments, and when doubts began to arise in my mind; to put off the uneasiness occasioned by them, my constant practice was, to recollect, as far as I could, all the reasonings and interpretations of scripture on the other side of the question; and when this failed of affording satisfaction, I had recourse to controversial writings. This drew me aside from the pure word of God, rendered me more remiss and formal in prayer, and furnished me with defensive armour against my convictions, with fuel for my passions and food for my pride and self-sufficiency.
To be continued
*Continued from Vol. 8 p.279.
** This was John Newton and his replies to Thomas Scott are printed in his works.