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THE CHRISTIAN REVIEW.
THE FOLLY OF DECRYING THE PRESENT AGE.
Say not thou, said an eastern sage, what is the cause that the former days were better than these ; for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.
The prohibition supposes, that mankind are prone to the commission of this fault; this covering of the past with an imagined splendor, and the present with an imagined darkness; this painting of the doings and characters of antiquity in gay and attractive colors, while those of a modern age are clothed with a sombre hue and cast. To learn this tendency of human nature, we need not go to the Bible. Our own observations abundantly teach the fact, and supply to us a copious fund of illustration. The inquiry, what is the cause that the former days were better than these, is repeatedly made by the political declaimer, who, by reason of the poverty of his attainments, and the scanty furniture of his intellect, resorts to this fertile source of popular eloquence, and draws from it largely, to point bis morals and round his periods. One would be led to suppose, judging from their indiscriminate eulogy, that Alexander was a demi-god, Alcibiades and Phocion and Themistocles an order of celestial patriots now extinct, Hannibal a prodigy of valor, neither stained by blood, nor guilty of any infamous outrages upon the vanquished, Marius a peerless pattern of a noble-minded revolutionist, Cæsar a paragon of military excellencies, and martial attributes,
VOL. II.-NO. V.
and patriotic self-devotion. In the same way,—did we credit all they assert respecting our revolutionary heroes, we might infer, that such men can never again be produced. It would seem, that they were all spotless, from the highest officer to the lowest subaltern in the field, and from the chief magistrate to the mere under-secretary in the cabinet. Their like is never to be seen again. We are told, if men now gird on their swords, it is only to chase and massacre some straggling Indians, or to spill their blood in an inglorious Texian struggle. To such a strain of remark, there seems to be no end. In the halls of our national and state legislatures, if a man be as mute as a statue on plain, common sense matters, he can, on this topic, pour forth his periods fluently and copiously, Collecting together his scraps of bistory and traditional anecdotes, and selecting the fair side of every character which he contemplates, he forms a picture as false and distorted as the images woven into cheap tapestry, in which you will see a head as large as the rest of the body, and the posts of a fence seeming to pierce the impendent clouds. Thus distorted and out of proportion are the pictures that are drawn of the past, by many a politician, when he rises to inquire, what is the cause that the former days were better than these ?
But these are not the only declaimers, who commit the fault on which we are now animadverting. There are religionists, who fall into the same error, and owe no small part of their success in playing the orator, to the fecundity of this theme, about which the most prosing are frequently quite animated and spirited. Thus it is our lot, in this age, to hear the times of Luther, and Calvin, and Melancthon, lauded to heaven, as the period when the doctrines of the Bible were best understood, and the system of divine truth most perfect and symmetrical. Similar praise is awarded to the age of Flavel, Howe, Baxter and Doddridge, not to enumerate others of no less fame in the galaxy of British divines. Were we to take for granted all that we hear on this subject, we might suppose, that, contrary to all experience in other cases, the progress of time bas produced an inversion of the order of things with regard to the knowledge of the word of God. For, in those other cases, the more discussion there is, the better is a subject understood. Truth is thereby evolved, and its scintillations struck out by the collision of mind with mind. But with reference to divine truth, the order of nature is, forsooth, reversed; and they who first opened their eyes to it, when it burst forth, like the sun through a cloud, at the Reformation, received more of its rays and measured its orb more accurately than all their successors put together. But this cannot be true; nor is it possible to believe in such an inverted order of things. Let us not be misunderstood. If they who first contemplated divine truth, at the dawn of the Reformation, had many facilities, they had also many obstacles to its acquisition. For unless they were more than men, they must have remained wedded to numerous prejudices, those "idols of the cave," as Bacon quaintly calls them, and attached to many absurd notions, that were produced and fostered by the darkness of the preceding ages, during which they had been educated. It was not possible for them to throw off these incumbrances to their minds at once, and divest themselves of such errors as they must bave cherished, provided they were not superhuman. On entering upon their investigations, and constructing their theories and systems, many things they took for granted, not suspecting that any could doubt their truth. Some things they examined, but employed an abstruse, scholastic mode of reasoning, which satisfied their own minds, but must fail to satisfy others, who have bad proof of the uncertainty of such reasoning. Some things they rested upon as tests, which, it is plain, they had not sufficiently studied, to know the meaning of; while other things they left unnoticed, because no mind is comprehensive enough to embrace all the points of a vast subject.
That the men, who figured at the time we are speaking of, had a great deal of truth on their side, no one would be so reckless of his reputation for candor as to deny. They dug very deep, and brought up much gold and many precious gems. They fought against error, with uncommonly well-furbished weapons, and smote with sinewy arms. They deserve highly from the world, as its greatest benefactors, nor can any meed be too honorable for them to receive. But since their tiine, much has been done to advance divine truth, and promote a far better understanding of its doctrines, than even those great men possessed. The streams of religious knowledge have been deepened, the fields of investigation widened, and new paths struck out by modern inquiries into the regions of moral truth; former errors have been exploded, and the means of rightly understanding the Bible multiplied, by the formation of a new science, that of sacred interpretation, founded upon a deeper acquaintance with the laws of language, greater familiarity with oriental customs and manners, and a better knowledge of the bistory of the east. To suppose that these causes have not advanced divine truth, would be at war with fact and common sense. To suppose that the present age is inferior in its theology, compared with past ages, would be to reverse the stream of knowledge, and make it broader at the fountain than it is at its mouth, narrowing its limits and becoming more shallow the further it flows. That many errors have crept into the divinity of this age, is not denied. No age deserves indiscriminate eulogy. But, allowing that some errors are mingled with what is true, we may challenge an honest comparison with our predecessors. Perhaps no fact more convincingly shows the superiority of the present over the past, with regard to religious knowledge, than that, formerly, a fiercer sectarian and polemic warfare was waged, than could now possibly be fomented between different persuasions of Christians. Such ferocity of attack and defence would now be universally frowned upon. There is too much religious enlightenment, for men any longer to mistake the raven for the dove. A century or two ago, what was more common, than for Baptists, and Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, to eye each other with suspicion and jealousy? And how often did these bitter looks end in quarrels and railings, and an odious war of sects, in which hostilities were carried on more in accordance with the nature of the lion than of the lamb ? Than this, nothing could more certainly indicate the ignorance, narrowness and bigotry that still existed among all parties. But as a clearer perception of truth was attained, and sounder views of theology prevailed, the consequences were, more liberality, a kindlier feeling, more fraternal affection, a disposition to regard chiefly essentials, hatred of discord, and the love of peace, purchased at any price short of sacrificing truth. Notwithstanding all this, however, how common it is for many religionists to inquire, what is the cause that the former days were better than these?
But the fault which we are now pointing out is not confined to politicians and religionists. The aged are another class, who are prone to cry out against the present and extol the past. Perhaps none are more disposed to believe that the times are out of joint, than they. The period of their youth was one in which, forsooth, men were wiser citizens, and purer patriots, and better Christians. Mankind were then less mean and selfish, more honest in their dealings, more punctual in their engagements, the public morals were kept at a higher standard, and the fear of God more generally acknowledged; there was then more honor and virtue and principle in the world; but now bardly any of these noble qualities of character are to be found. The idea is presented in many forms. But the whole of it is this, there is a general declension in those things that marked the good old times. Even religion herself is not what she used to be, when the venerable class here spoken of solicited her smiles and wooed her embrace. This is the strain which they too often indulge, especially to their young brethren, who sometimes ill suppress the contempt which they feel. Not aware of the deceitful influence of distance, in hiding deformities in any object, and mellowing the roughest features, they judge from deceptive views, and inake no allowance for the deceit practised upon their understandings by the long space through which they look; while, on the other hand, they are as little on their guard against the error to which they are exposed by contemplating an object too nearly. Let them know, however, that intellectual and moral objects require to be beld at a certain point, to be viewed correctly, just as material objects must be, in order to see them in their proper and just proportions. Owing to these causes of misapprehension, the class of men, now alluded to, misjudge in their estimate of the comparative merits of the past and the present ; unduly magnifying the virtues of the one, and the vices of the other. And hence, they do not wisely inquire, what is the cause that the former days were better than these?
It is proper to remark, here, that our observations are not designed to rebuke all comparison of the past with the present. This would destroy history, and cut off all the advantages to be derived from that useful branch of knowledge. But such inquiries respecting the past, as are found upon the historic page, are, in the highest degree, useful and proper; nor do they conflict, in the least, with what we are maintaining. From this study, political and all other kinds of wisdom are gleaned. In this way, the experience of one age subserves the progress of another succeeding one. From thence, the orator draws kindling motives to arouse a people from their lethargy, and stir them up to noble daring and splendid achievement in the cause of liberty. Thus, none of the motives urged by Cicero pen