The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Prefects of the System of Natural Religion

I. Without any argument on the subject, the insufficiency of natural religion, as a means of human reformation, might be readily made manifest by facts.

1. The facts on which natural religion rests, and the intellectual power to derive the moral laws from the facts, have been in the possession of man from the beginning. Yet, the whole history of man has exhibited a constant tendency to moral deterioration. This is proved by the fact, that every people, not enlightened by revelation, consider the earliest period of their history as the period of their greatest moral purity. Then, the gods and men held frequent intercourse; this intercourse, in consequence of the sins of men, has since been discontinued. That was the golden age; the subsequent ages have been of brass, or of iron. The political history of men seems to teach the same lesson. In the early ages of national existence, sparseness of population, mutual fear, and universal poverty, have obliged men to lay the foundations of society in principles of justice, in order to secure national existence. But, as soon as, under such a constitution, wealth was increased, population become dense, and progress in arts and arms have rendered a nation fearless, the anti-social tendencies of vice have shown themselves too powerful for the moral forces by which they have been opposed. The bonds of society have been gradually dissolved, and a nation, rich in the spoils of an hundred triumphs, becomes the prey of some warlike ant more virtuous horde, which takes possession of the spoil, merely to pursue the same career to a more speedy termination.

2. The systems of religion of the heathen may be fairly considered as the legitimate result of all the moral forces which are in operation upon man, irrespective of revelation. They show us, not what man might have learned by the proper use of his faculties in the study of duty, but what he has always actually learned. Now, these systems, so far from having any tendency to make man better, have a manifest tendency to make him worse. Their gods were of the most profligate and demoralizing character. Had natural religion succeeded in instilling into the minds of men true ideas of virtue and duty, their imaginations, in forming conceptions of deities, would have invested them with far different attributes.

3. The ethical systems of philosophers, it is true, not unfrequently presented sublime and pure conceptions of Deity. But, as instruments of moral reformation, they were clearly inoperative. They were extremely imperfect in everything which relates to our duties to man, and, specially, in every thing which relates to our duty to God; they offered no sufficient motives to obedience; they were established on subtle reasonings, which could not be comprehended by the common people; and they imposed no obligation upon their disciples to disseminate them among others. Hence, they were never extensively known, beyond the small circle of meditative students; and, by these, they were considered rather as matters of doubtful speculation, than of practical benefit; adapted rather to the cultivation of intellectual acuteness, than to the reformation of moral conduct. I think that any one, on reading the ethical disquisitions of the ancients, must be struck with the fact, that honest, simple, and ardent love of truth seems to have furnished no motive whatever to their investigations; and that its place was supplied by mere curiosity, or love of the new, the refined, and even the paradoxical.

And, hence, as might be expected, these ethical systems made no converts from vice to virtue. From the era of which of the systems of ancient ethics, can any reformation be dated? Where are their effects recorded in the moral history of man? Facts have abundantly proved them to be utterly destitute of any power over the conscience, or of any practical influence over the conduct.

4. Nor can this failure be attributed to any want of intellectual cultivation. During a large portion of the period of which we have spoken, the human mind had, in many respects, attained to which state of perfection as it has attained at any subsequent age. Eloquence, poetry, rhetoric, nay, some of the severer sciences, were studied with a success which has never since been surpassed. This is universally confessed. Yet what progress did the classic ages make in morals? And hence, we think, it must be admitted that the human mind, even under the most favorable circumstances, has never, when unassisted by revelation, deduced from the course of things around us any such principles of duty, or motives to the performance of it, as were sufficient to produce any decided effect upon the moral character of man.

And hence were we unable to assign the cause of this failure; yet the fact of the failure alone is sufficient to prove the necessity of some other means for arriving at a knowledge of duty, than is afforded by the light of nature.

II. But, secondly, the causes of this insufficiency may, in many respects, be pointed out. Among them are obviously the following:

1. The mode of teaching natural religion is by experience. We can form no opinion respecting the results of two opposite courses of action, until they be both before us. Hence, we cannot certainly know what the law is, except by breaking it. Hence, the habit of violation must, in some sense, be formed, before we know what the law is which we violate. Consequently, from the nature of the case, natural religion must always be much behind the age, and must always utter its precepts to men who are, in some manner, fixed in the habit of violating them.

2. There are many moral laws in which the connection between the transgression and the punishment cannot be shown, except in the more advanced periods of society. Such is the fact, in respect to those laws which can be ascertained only by extended and minute observation; and, of course, a state of society in which knowledge is widely disseminated, and the experience of a large surface, and for a long period, may be necessary to establish the fact of the connection between this particular violation and this particular result. In the mean time, mankind will be suffering all the consequences of vice; and the courses of conduct which are the causes of misery, will be interweaving themselves with the whole customs, and habits, and interests, of every class of society. Thus, it too often happens, that the knowledge is with great difficulty acquired, and, when acquired, unfortunately comes too late to effect a remedy.

3. A still more radical deficiency, however, in natural religion, is, that it is, from its nature, incapable of teaching facts. It can teach only laws and tendencies. From observing what has been done, and how it has been done, it can infer that, if the same thing were done again, it would be done in the same manner, and would be attended, in all places, and at all times, if under the same conditions, with the same results. But, as to a fact, that is, whether an action were actually performed at some other place or time, or whether it ever would be, natural religion can give us nu information. Thus, we know by experience, that, if a man fall from a precipice, he will be destroyed; but, whether a man ever did so fall, much less whether A or B did fall from it, we can never be informed by general principles. Thus, from the fact that we see guilt punished in this world, we infer, from natural religion, that it will always be punished in this world; we infer, though not so certainly, that it will also be punished in another world, if there be another world; but of the fact whether there be another world, natural religion can give us no certain information; much less, can it give us any information respecting the question whether God has actually done any thing to remedy the evils of sin, and vary those sequences which, without a remedy, experience shows us to be inevitable.

4. Hence, natural religion must derive all its certain! motives from the present world. Those from the other world are, so far as it is concerned, in their nature contingent and uncertain. And, hence, it loses all that power over man, which would be derived from the certain knowledge of our existence after death, of the nature of that existence, and of what. God has done for our restoration to virtue and happiness. All these being facts, can never be known, except by language, that is, by revelation. They must always remain in utter incertitude, so long as we are left to the teachings of natural religion.

We see, then, that natural religion is obliged to meet the impulsions from this world, solely by impulsions from this world. Nay, more, she is obliged. to resist the power of the present, of passion strengthened and confirmed by habit, by considerations drawn from the distant, the future, and what may seem to be the uncertain. Hence, its success must be at best but dubious, even when its power is. exerted upon those least exposed to the allurements of vice. Who does not see that it is utterly vain, to hope for success from such a source, in our attempts to reform men in general? Every one, who is at all acquainted with the history of man, must be convinced, that nothing less powerful than the whole amount of motive derived from the knowledge of an endless existence, has ever been found a sufficient antagonist force. to the downward and headlong tendencies of appetite and passion.

And hence, from the fact of the recorded failure of natural religion, as a means of reformation, and from the defects inherent in its very nature, as a means of moral improvement, there seems clearly to exist a great need of some additional moral force, to correct the moral evils of our nature. It is surely not improbable that some additional means of instruction and improvement may have been grated to our race by a merciful Creator.