This is a website of the James Begg Society.

Thomas Halyburton on
Experimental Religion
by Rev. Robert Burns, D.D.

T HERE are two extremes into which professing Christians of the present day are very apt to fall. While one class adopt a system of doctrinal sentiments without any practical regard to their influence on the heart and on the life, another satisfy themselves with the simple performance of social duties. Into the religious scheme of the former, there enter few, if any, of those holy affections, and little of that sublime practical virtue which the gospel requires. Into the scheme of the latter, there enter few of the leading principles of the Christian revelation, and a very small portion of that spirituality of sentiment and of feeling which constitutes the very essence of vital godliness. The religion of both is alike cold and inefficient. Doctrinal truth must indeed lie at the very foundation of all true piety; and no man can cultivate the spirit and practise the duties of religion, without a clear and scriptural knowledge of the truths of God. But it ought never to be forgotten that the doctrines of the gospel are all highly practical in their tendency, and that we cannot be said to hold them at all, if we “hold them in unrighteousness.” We lose sight of their great original design. We pervert them to our own selfish and unholy purposes, and in so doing, we evince an alienation from the love of the truth as it is in Jesus.

The religion which terminates in theory, and that which satisfies itself with the performance of social duties, are alike remote from the holy system of the Bible.

The one fills the mind with notions and inflates it with intellectual pride, the other gratifies the selfish conceit of personal virtue, while it sets aside all the great principles of real godliness. The one lays hold of those truths which are designed and fitted to operate as incentives to holiness, but it fails to carry them out to their legitimate applications; the other satisfies itself with a part of religion in place of the whole, and separates the love of our neighbour from the love of God. In both, the grand features of true godliness are overlooked.

Cold mental abstractions are substituted in place of vital practical principles, and the morality of a Seneca and an Epictetus is set forth as a counterpart to that of Christ and his apostles.

There is reason to fear lest the style of public instruction which many preachers of the gospel have of late years adopted should tend to encourage these low and defective views of real religion. We allude to that species of pulpit address which speaks to the understanding alone, which exhibits religious truth in the form of logical discussion and well-arranged argument, and which sacrifices unction and pathetic appeal for the sake of minute accuracy and elegant diction. Popular discourses are thus made to assume the form of philosophical dissertations, and the aim of the preacher seems to be to convince rather than to persuade. Now, it is perfectly true that the man whose province it is to plead for God and for truth ought to address the judgement and the rational powers, and if he fails to do so, he is in danger of substituting empty declamation in place of solid and scriptural instruction. Let it, however, be remembered, that in the present day we have more to do with practical infidelity than with absolute ignorance, and that the reason why religion is at so low an ebb amongst us may be traced rather to disinclination of heart than to sceptical heterodoxy. The preacher of truth must state, illustrate and vindicate its claims on the understanding and the judgement, but he has only accomplished one half of his office if he seeks not to secure for it a safe and permanent lodgement in the conscience and the heart.

With this twofold end in view, he must unite warmth of address with clearness of statement, impassioned appeals to the conscience with sound arguments to the understanding, and the direct application of motives with their perspicuous exhibition in theory. We cannot conceive a greater danger to which the souls of men are exposed, than when the hearers of the gospel are left to infer the safety of their state from the soundness of their creed. The doctrinal articles of a theological system are one thing, the vital principles of the same system applied to the heart and to the habits, are quite another. It is the part of abstract discussion to analyse and establish the doctrinal articles, it belongs to hortatory [ exhortatory ] and pastoral theology to unfold and apply the practical principles. If we confine ourselves to the work of analysis and explanation, we are in extreme hazard of tempting men to measure their progress in the Christian life by the clearness of their apprehensions, rather than by the moral amelioration of their habits. Theory may thus take place of solid and steady principle. A barren orthodoxy of sentiment may thus be confounded with practical submission to the entire and undivided scheme of grace. The doctrine of regeneration may thus be readily embraced as scriptural and true, while the very men who thus embrace it as an article in their creed, may practically shrink from the solemn decision of the Saviour “Ye must be born again!” We apprehend that the difference between evangelical preaching and that which is called moderate or legal, does not, when fairly and fully brought out, resolve itself into the mere technical distinctions which are marked by the terms orthodoxy and heterodoxy. It is perfectly possible to construct a scheme of doctrine in all respects scriptural, while there may be nothing in it that is calculated to give offence to the carnal mind or to rouse the sleeping conscience.

The fashion of the present day is rather favourable than otherwise to such orthodox exhibitions of Christianity, and hence it is that few, comparatively, propound from our pulpits the dogmas of Pelagian or Socinian heresy. Only allow to religion the province of the understanding alone, and it makes little difference whether it shall be regaled with the realities of truth or with the figments of error. If speculation is all that is aimed at, the love of it may be gratified by statements that are substantially sound, as well as by the creations of mere fancy. Abstracted from the practical tendency of the doctrines of evangelical truth, there is nothing in their theoretical exhibition that is peculiarly calculated to excite the determined opposition of the carnal mind, and so long as nothing is designed beyond a simple exposÚ of them as materials of thinking, ‘the offence of the cross’ will neither be very violent nor very long continued. The real cause of that enmity which the ‘natural man’ cherishes and expresses towards the things of God, is to be found in the holy, humbling, heart-searching and selfannihilating tendency of the gospel of the grace of God, and the essential difference between evangelical and moderate preaching consists in the prominence which is given by the one to the scriptural doctrine of conversion, compared with the absolute reticence of the other on this cardinal principle of Christianity. Even the self-denying doctrine of imputed righteousness will not excite very virulent hostility on the part of corrupted men, so long as it is not exhibited in connection with the absolute necessity of a radical and universal change of sentiment and of character before we can “enter into the kingdom of heaven.” It is the doctrine of free, sovereign and regenerating grace enlightening the mental eye and changing the current of the hearts affections, convincing the man of his absolute nothingness in the sight of God and of his utter destitution of all godliness, awakening him to a sense of his sin and danger and prompting him to cry out with holy anxiety of spirit, “What shall I do to be saved?” It is this spiritual and practical view of the Christian remedy for man’s moral diseases, together with the tone of deep seriousness and impassioned fervour with which it is proclaimed, that rouses the hostility of men, and leads them to characterise evangelical preaching as wild and enthusiastic. We may preach orthodox doctrine according to our standards as long and as clearly as we please, and provided we only discuss and reason with the calm composure of the intellectual philosopher, no offence will be given or taken. It is not so much the mere statement of truth that gives offence, as the manner in which the truth is applied. It is not the appeal to the understanding that will irritate, it is rather the attempt to probe the conscience. It is not the general exhibition of certain peculiar opinions that rouses indignation, it is rather the minute and searching application of principles to insulated individuals. This it is that constitutes the life and soul of practical experimental preaching, and to this the “hard” and “desperately wicked heart” of unrenewed man will ever be sternly opposed.

Bishop Maltby, a very learned, but very heterodox divine of the Church of England, has told us in one of his sermons that ‘the offence of the cross’ is a thing totally unknown in these halcyon days. “Since,” says he, “it is no longer discreditable to profess our faith in Christ, we cannot incur the hazard of opposing or offending our nearest and dearest connections. A man no longer encounters foes among his own household; he is not obliged to renounce the regard and affection of his family because he believes in Christ, and therefore the warning which our Lord found it necessary to give in those days, and in that country, has no meaning if applied literally in our own.” The ‘warning’ alluded to by the preacher is contained in these affecting words of him who ‘spake as never man spake’: “Whosoever doth not bear his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” Of this warning the reverend divine has been pleased to affirm that “it has no meaning” if applied to modern times. In other words, the believer has in these days and in this beloved land, nothing in the way of a ‘cross’ or trial to bear, arising out of the profession he makes as a follower of Jesus. It is worthy of remark that the terms of the statement, even as made originally by our blessed Lord himself, were figurative. It was not literally true of every individual believer in those times, that he had to bear the cross in the same manner as his blessed Lord did bear it when he went up to the scene of his ignominious and cruel death.

The expression was obviously designed to forewarn the followers of Jesus of the trials they might be called to endure in consequence of their embracing the gospel, and the test of their sincerity is the readiness with which they “denied themselves,” and submitted to the persecutions which awaited them.

True it is, that the profession of the gospel does not now expose to trials of precisely the same kind or the same degree of severity. The arm of secular persecution is not now stretched out against the humble followers of the Lamb. We dwell under the fostering wing of a mild and tolerant administration. Christianity is ‘part and parcel’ of the constitution of the country. Its institutes have been incorporated with the civil statutes of the realm, and while legal provision has been made for the due celebration of its ordinances throughout the length and the breadth of the land, every man, whether availing himself of that provision or not, is permitted “to sit under his vine and fig tree, none daring to make him afraid.” Still we demur to the assertion that the Christian believer has now ‘no cross’ to bear. “The carnal mind” is still “enmity against God,” and “he that would be the friend of the world must be the enemy of God.” A cold and formal profession of the faith of Christ may indeed consist with perfect immunity from everything approaching to persecution, and the piety which never obtrudes itself on spectators, and which operates no change whatever on the customs and manners of its professors, may be allowed to pass along with perfect security. But what shall we say of the contempt and ridicule with which vital godliness is so frequently met, both in the higher and in the inferior walks of life? And what shall we say of the bitterness of that zeal which, in the bosom of a worldly-minded family, is strenuously directed against the humble and modest, but ardent, piety of one or more of its members, who, by the grace of God, may have begun to manifest “another spirit?” And what shall we say of the frigid indifference or the determined hostility with which any direct allusion to the God who made us, or the Saviour who redeemed us by his blood, is met in the senate house of our country, or in the high places of the land?

And what shall we say of the spirit of reckless animosity with which the public journals and the daily vehicles of intelligence are in the habit of assailing those worthy men who stand up boldly for the purity of the Sabbath and the freedom of the slave? Is there no persecution here? Nothing of the nature of a ‘cross’ which the generous mind must bear? No practical demonstration of the fact that real godliness and strict morality are still the objects of scorn and ridicule to the men of this present world?

The world knows and “loves its own,” and the religion which is pleased with things as they are and which ventures not beyond the magic circle of this world’s occupations, and pleasures, and interests, will run no very imminent risk of incurring the “world’s dread laugh.” Such a religion may suit the meridian of Dr Maltby, and his accommodating followers, but such a religion will do little to make head against the growing vices of the age. It may be ‘peaceable’ but it is not ‘pure’.

In such books as those of professor Halyburton we meet with much of that which has been denominated, not unaptly, experimental religion.

Enlightened and judicious Christians whose views have not been perverted by modern philosophy and who have not yet forsaken the ‘old land-marks’ nor the ‘old paths’ know very well what is designated by the terms. Experimental religion they consider as the only true practical religion – well grounded in principle, and sturdy in its opposition to all that is unholy – and they are inclined to look upon whatever falls short of it in the light of frivolous speculation or concealed infidelity. There are others, however, and these, there is too good reason to believe, by far the majority amongst us, who confound experimental religion with fanaticism and mental delusion. Hence, we need not be surprised at finding it made the butt of an unsparing and relentless ridicule. Those who venture to defend it, as well as those who are considered as its hapless subjects or victims, are held up to public scorn, either as designing hypocrites, or as beings removed by a very few degrees from the region of the fatuous. But as “ridicule is not” always “the test of truth,” and as the Almighty has been pleased to give us a perfect standard by which every opinion as well as every habit and practice may be tried, let us endeavour to ascertain what may be the claims of this phenomenon called experimental religion, to be held up to the cruelty and scorn of the ‘rationalist’.

I. We would enquire, then, in the outset – What may be meant by experimental religion? Is it not frequently misunderstood? Are not the terms often grievously misapplied? And is it not of vast moment in every such inquiry, to attempt at least a careful separation between the chaff and the wheat?

As there is no subject, either in religion or in morals, on which erroneous ideas have not been held under the guise of truth, we need not be surprised if such ideas have been at different periods entertained with respect to the nature of experimental religion. Some there are who suppose it to consist in a certain supernatural intercourse with Deity; the perception at the moment of a celestial influx of grace into the soul, sensible illapses of the spirit, and spiritual exercises of soul altogether inconsistent with the ordinary rules which regulate the government of heaven. Others suppose it to consist in certain agitations of the animal frame, hastily mistaken for the touches of seraphic influence; in the changes which take place in the state of the feelings and passions, occasioned, it is supposed, by causes approaching to the miraculous; and in the observation of common occurrences mistaken for extraordinary interpositions of Providence. Again, the terms have been applied to designate the feelings and habits which may have been acquired by profound speculations on matters which lie far beyond the range of the human intellect, and a peculiar species of sensations of which no one except the actual participant can form any idea.

While such false conceptions as these are entertained on this subject, need we wonder that it should be made the butt of ridicule, and that the elevated experiences of enlightened Christian believers should be thus exposed to the imminent danger of ranking with the flights of Madame Guyon, and the dreams of Emmanuel Swedenborg?

But what is really experimental religion?

It is neither more nor less than the practical application of the great truths of religion to the particular cases of individuals. It is, in other words, the practical efficacy of Christian doctrine exemplified in the heart and on the life. It is Christianity brought home to “men’s business and bosoms.” For example, religion calls on us to acknowledge, as founded on plain matter of fact, the doctrine of human depravity in general; it becomes experimental religion when this doctrine is felt to be true from our own personal experience. We may believe that there is salvation only through the merits of the Redeemer, and we may rejoice in the assurance that all who come unto God through him shall obtain everlasting life; we believe it experimentally when we are individually humbled under a heartfelt sense of our utter inability to save ourselves, and when our own convictions of the absolute nothingness of our own resources respond to the dictates of God’s infallible word. Christ hath promised the aid of his grace to renew, to sanctify, to comfort and to guide; it is the province of experimental religion to cherish the sense of our need of grace, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, and to be earnest and persevering in prayer for the influences of the Holy Spirit. We descant [ talk freely ] on the infinite value of Christianity as a source of pure and satisfying spiritual comfort; experimental religion consists in the personal enjoyment of this spiritual comfort. The Scriptures describe the Christian life as a “race” in which we must run so as to obtain, as a “fight” in which we must strenuously contend against spiritual enemies; in short, as a course of unceasing moral and spiritual exertion, sincerely and perseveringly to “run the race set before us” to enter on the spiritual combat and to continue in it, to discharge the duties of personal and relative obligation in the spirit of humble dependence on God, and ardent attachment to his service – this is experimental religion. To speculate on religion as a system of sublime truths, and as a powerful means of intellectual and spiritual improvement, is to know it as a science; we reduce it to experiment only when we bring it into contact with our habitual conceptions of things, and when we adopt it as the supreme guide of ordinary conduct. In one word, the principle on which experimental religion rests is simply this, that Christianity should not only be known, and understood, and believed, but also felt, and enjoyed, and practically applied.

II. There is nothing in experimental religion, as thus viewed, which is at variance with the unbiased dictates of right reason. If the doctrines and principles of Christianity be reasonable in themselves, their application to the great and salutary purposes of real life cannot surely be unreasonable. If human nature be really depraved, is it irrational to feel and to lament that we, individually, and as forming part of the common corrupted mass, are indeed partakers of the common depravity, and that therefore we ought, in the language of the prophet, to “mourn, each family apart, and each soul apart?” If religious truth be indeed a source of consolation, is it unreasonable to expect, and actually to realise this consolation? If Christ permits and cordially invites us to hope in the mercy of his Father through the atonement and gracious intercession of himself as our great High Priest, is it unreasonable that we should “rejoice” in this hope, and that under its influence we should seek to “purify ourselves, even as he is pure?” If the life of the Christian be indeed a race, a pilgrimage journey through the wilderness of this world, a moral campaign from which death only can release us, where is the absurdity of supposing that Christians may occasionally faint on their journey, or be wounded by their spiritual enemies, and that, in consequence of these casualties, much of what is known by the name of Christian experience should be acquired and treasured up for future and efficient service? The principles of a science are generally supposed to acquire additional evidence and illustration from their being able to stand the test of rigid and repeated experiment; why should religion be the only science in which experiment shall be exploded? Can it be on any ground irrational and unphilosophical to seek for proofs of the truth, and excellence, and suitableness of Christian doctrine, from the actual experience of men, and from its well authenticated results on human character and life? The irrationality is all on the other side. The opponents of experimental religion do not avowedly explode the claims of religious truth to a cool and successful vindication; they rather boast of their having taken it out of the hands of unskilful defenders. But then they defend its claims simply as truth, and they estimate its merits by a standard exclusively intellectual. They maintain the importance of religion, but it is religion in the abstract sense, religion considered as a matter of scientific discussion, religion as held to be too ethereal in its essence and too recondite [ obscure ] in its speculative researches to be trusted for common and every day usage in the hands of such creatures as the mass of mankind are found to be.

They occasionally, and when the humour serves, introduce us into a paradise of delicious products; but when we venture to put forth our hands to grasp the fascinating sweets, a voice of stern prohibition is heard – “touch not, taste not, handle not.” Can anything be more unreasonable than thus to acknowledge and to applaud the general truths of religion, but to reject their practical efficiency and their personal application?

To defend religion as a science, but to deny to it all intercourse with the feelings, and the prospects, and the ordinary pursuits of men? On this principle, the shadow is indeed retained, but the substance is irretrievably gone.

An altar is reared, and the sacrifice may be spread out upon its summit, but where is the sacred fire, and where the hallowed incense that ascends in silent majesty to heaven?

III. Is there anything in experimental religion that is inconsistent with the holy, and gracious, and all-perfect character of Jehovah?

That Jehovah should reveal to his creatures, rational, immortal and accountable, truths which possess a certain degree of moral efficacy which are intended to operate powerfully on the feelings and the affections of men, to excite certain agreeable emotions, and to produce certain valuable practical effects, is surely not inconsistent either with his natural or his moral attributes. Indeed, it would be far more difficult to vindicate the Divine character from the charge of inconsistency, on the supposition that truths had been revealed which possess no moral efficacy, which address themselves exclusively to the intellect of men and which are designed to terminate in speculation. Truths of this abstract and refined character adapt themselves full well to beings endowed with intelligence alone, but they will not suit the nature of such a complex being as man. Where, on this supposition, would be the argument in favour of Christianity from its admirable adaptation to man’s original constitution, and to the place which he holds in the universe of God?

But it may be supposed not so easy to reconcile with our best conceptions of the Divine character, that acknowledged principle in experimental religion which implies a certain kind of spiritual intercourse between God and the soul of the believer. The advocates of experimental religion do maintain that God communicates his grace to men, that he inspires them with the enraptured feeling of spiritual consolation, that he condescends to hold fellowship with them in the holy exercises of sanctified affection, that believers are constantly under the gracious superintendence of Jehovah, and are, by the discipline of his providence and grace, gradually attuned to the temper and the bliss of heaven. If any objection can be made to this view of the case, the force of the objection bears not against experimental religion in particular, but against the doctrine of divine influence in general. If, in the world of nature, a present Deity is “ever seen and ever felt,” in conducting, by a mysterious but real efficiency, the hidden processes of vegetable and animal life, shall we deem it the part of reason and of wisdom to place the moral and the spiritual worlds beyond the range of an influence similar in power, but wisely adapted to the very different subjects on which it is found to operate? And if we allow that a certain spiritual influence is exerted by God on the minds of men, through the medium of religious truth addressed to the understanding and the heart, shall we hesitate to allow that this influence is exerted for the purpose of implanting and cherishing holy principles, of animating virtuous feelings and of inspiring spiritual joy? It must be granted that the doctrine of divine influence in general, and this specific modification of it, do alike imply the doctrine of a special Providence. But is there anything inconsistent with the moral character of God in the supposition that, while he exercises a general and a particular providence over the world, he should exercise a special Providence towards the church which he hath chosen as his “resting place?” That while he confers temporal blessings on all men indiscriminately, in the course of his holy and gracious Providence, he should confer spiritual blessings of a peculiar kind on his own people in particular?

That while he holds a condescending intercourse with all creatures in the way of preservation and protection, he should hold with good men and with the denizens of immortality, an intercourse of a nobler and more heavenly character, for the purpose of preserving alive the spark of spiritual life, of administering consolation and defending from invisible foes? It is of importance to remark that prior to, and independent of, revelation and experience, it is quite beyond our power to tell what it may or may not be consistent with the Divine character to do, in regard to these modes of communication with our world and its inhabitants. We may traverse the wide fields of the intellectual world, but we shall not find one decisive argument to prove it inconsistent with the attributes of God, that he should hold special intercourse with good men through the medium of the truths and ordinances of religion. The subject is confessedly one that lies far beyond our reach. All our information regarding it arises from the written word, and if the voice of nature, even among the blinded heathen, is for one moment to be listened to for a response, that response will be in perfect unison with the dictates of inspiration, for, by the teachers of virtue among the ancients, all real excellence of character was ascribed to the influence of Deity, and the virtues which were inscribed on characters of ideal greatness were linked with the dignities and the bliss of a celestial fellowship.

I should question much the title of that system of theology to be reckoned either philosophically just, or practically influential, which would go to destroy that beautiful analogy which obtains between the doctrine of Divine influence, and the constitution and course of nature.

God hath constructed the grand machine of the material universe, hath arranged in beautiful harmony its varied parts, and hath subjected the whole to the control of certain laws, but God hath not seen meet to withdraw himself from the works of his hands, or to resign the beautiful machine of things to a general and undefined legislative control. Our God is not like the deity of Epicurus, or the Brahma of Hinduism, removed at an awful distance from the productions of his own hand and dwelling in a state of absolute quiescence and sublime indifference to all that is. “Our God is in the heavens; and he doeth what pleaseth him in the heavens and in the earth, and in all deep places.” All is under his control. The revolutions of the seasons, and the rise and fall of empires, are alike the subjects of his regard, and without him “not even a sparrow can fall to the ground.” Analogy leads us to expect the same presence and the same agency in the operations of the spiritual kingdom; and this analogy, the scheme which excludes Divine influence on the soul of man, tends directly to interrupt and to destroy.

It deprives man of the noblest of all motives to sacred diligence in duty, that, namely, which an apostle derives from God’s ability and willingness to “work in us both to will and to do.” It restrains us within the limits of a region comparatively cold and uninviting. It places an impassable barrier in the way of our access to that “temple of the living God” on earth, whose mansions are blest with the residence of the “eternal Spirit,” and whose worshippers are gladdened with his hallowed inspirations.

IV. There is nothing in experimental religion that is inconsistent with plain and real facts as illustrative of the moral government of God in other instances.

Every pursuit, mental or moral, has a particular tendency. Every truth which the mind perceives, every event which happens in the course of Providence has some influence, in a greater or in a less degree beneficial or hurtful. Is this analogy disturbed by supposing that the truths of religion, the facts which Christianity records, and the holy views which it presents, should also possess and exercise a potent influence over the mind? The experience of all those who have been accustomed to intellectual and moral pursuits, bears witness to the same truth, and supports, by analogy, the reasonableness of experimental religion.

In searching for truth, the philosopher enjoys a high mental satisfaction. Every new discovery gives delight to his mind, and the difficulties with which he is called to struggle only quicken his ardour in pursuit. Who can tell the delight which the astronomer feels in counting the heavenly bodies, calculating their distances, exploring the orbits in which they move, and pointing out the laws by which they are regulated? What rapture, approaching to enthusiasm, on the discovery of a new star, on the observation of a comet in its first approach to our globe, or even on a fortunate conjecture respecting the matter of which its shining train is composed?

What emotions, think you, fill the soul of a mathematician, while occupied in solving a difficult problem, or in constructing a beautiful proposition? The feelings of all these men, if disclosed, would appear altogether ridiculous to those who cannot enter into them. Shall we then confine all mental and moral pleasures, all high wrought pulsations of soul, all enthusiastic ardour (if enthusiasm must needs be supposed) to the breasts of the speculative few? Is there no portion to be dealt out to the humble Christian in the retired walks of life, whose secular views, perhaps, rise not above the village where his first breath was drawn, but whose spiritual prospects expand with the immensity of the universe? Shall Archimedes, when he had accidentally discovered the method of calculating the quantity of alloy in a golden crown, be permitted with impunity, and without any question as to his understanding, to run through the streets of Syracuse, exclaiming, in all the wantonness of philosophic joy, “Eureka, Eureka I have found it! I have found it!”?

– And shall the Christian be branded with the insignia of enthusiasm and madness, because he speaks of a “joy that is unspeakable and full of glory,” because, for a season, he seems to be overpowered with the sublime raptures of a pure and an elevated devotion, and because he lays claim to a happiness with which a “stranger intermeddleth not?” To change the scene. If there be particular occasions on which even the lover of science is filled with melancholy foreboding when he beholds the clouds of ignorance and of error which encircle or surcharge the intellectual horizon, need we wonder if in the Christian life there should be seasons when, amid the perplexing influences of an evil heart within and the “abounding of iniquity” without, good men may walk in sadness and go mourning without the sun? The truth is, those only oppose and ridicule experimental religion who have no spiritual discernment, no spiritual taste, no spiritual desires. “The way of peace is above to the righteous.” The life of a believer is hid with Christ in God.

“The world knoweth not the sons of God, because it knew not Him” who is emphatically and in a distinctive and peculiar sense “God’s own son.”

V. The reality of experimental religion is attested beyond all question by the testimony and example of the greatest and best of men in all ages. Look to the character of the saints of God as exhibited in the unerring page of God’s own word. Were they strangers to experimental religion? Did they rest satisfied with cold and barren abstractions? Were they kept at an awful distance from the region of feeling, because they trembled at the charge of enthusiasm, or were afraid of being “righteous overmuch?” What a variety of emotions agitated the soul of David! What elevation of spirit at one time, and depression at another!

What hallowed delight in communion with God. What earnest desires after loftier spiritual attainments! “There be many that say, Who will show us any good? Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon me. Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased.” “Why art thou cast down, O my soul! and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance.” “O my God, my soul is cast down within me; therefore will I remember thee from the land of Jordan, and of the Ammonites, and from the hill Mizar. Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts; all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me. Yet the Lord will command his loving-kindness in the daytime, and in the night his song shall be with me; and my prayer unto the God of my life.” “O send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me; let them bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy tabernacles: then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy.” “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God!” “O! God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee; my soul thirsteth for thee; my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; to see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary.” “My soul breaketh for the longing it hath for thy commandments at all times.” – Is there nothing of the language and the feeling of experience in all this? And do the writers of the New Testament adopt a different strain? Read the history and the writings of the apostle Paul through these channels, enter his breast and contemplate the features of spiritual religion as exemplified in him. Did he know nothing experimentally of the “peace which passeth all understanding,” and the joy which is “unspeakable and full of glory”? Did he remain in the posture of a stoic, and the victim of all the apathy and deadness of “simple intellect,” when he contemplated the “height and the depth, the breadth and the length,” of the love of the Redeemer, “which passeth all knowledge?” And did the “great mystery of godliness,” “God manifest in the flesh,” excite no higher emotion in his soul than the examination of a problem in mathematics, or a theory of pure abstraction? We have only to read his Epistles, and those of his fellow apostles Peter and John, to mark the striking contrast betwixt their holy illustrations of divine truth, and the cold speculations and barren generalities of some modern theologians. Moreover, we might search the history of the church, and bring forward from its closely studded pages a “great cloud of witnesses” to the reality and importance of experimental religion. Men of talents very various, and of sentiments on lesser matters not less various, and men of very different temperament in regard to animal constitution, combine in asserting that religion is an internal thing; that it is a matter of personal experience; that it is alike removed from the ravings of the visionary on the one hand, and the frigid speculations of the mere moralist on the other. We appeal to the Fathers of the Protestant churches, and we ask, if there was nothing experimental in that system of faith, of hope, and of holiness which enabled them to brave death in its most awful forms, and to sing even in the midst of flames? We appeal to the Christian world, as it is even in these degenerate days, and we ask the really religious of every country and of every clime, if there be nothing experimental in that religion which enables its votaries to stand erect in the flood of tribulation, and to smile even in the vale of death? We appeal to the church-triumphant in heaven, and we ask, if there is nothing experimental in those feelings which express themselves in such ascriptions as these: “Worthy the lamb that was slain, to receive power, and riches, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and to the lamb for ever and ever?”

That experimental religion is not at all inconsistent with the possession and the display of intellect, in its highest advances, may be inferred from the plain matter of fact that the same man whose Memoirs have so frequently been charged with the rankest enthusiasm, was the author of a most learned and comprehensive reply to the deistical scheme of the celebrated Lord Herbert of Cherbury.

Mr Halyburton’s book on the “Insufficiency of Natural Religion, and the Necessity of Revelation” was occasioned by the publication of certain treatises written by that sceptical nobleman with the avowed object of setting aside the pretensions of all “particular religions,” as he termed them; and resting the claims of religion at large on the basis of nature alone. His Lordship reduced all the essential articles of religion to five: the unity of God, the reasonableness of divine worship, the obligations of piety and virtue, the sufficiency of repentance for pardon, and a state of rewards and punishments after death. He attempted to show that these doctrines had been recognised in every age and in every country as the common faith of mankind, and that anything beyond the circle which bounds them is unnecessary, and even pernicious. It will be obvious to the most careless observer that the above catalogue comprehends, with a single exception, the whole faith of the Socinian, and it is edifying just to notice the very near approximation which the faith of the deist and of the followers of the Fratres Poloni [ “Polish Brethren” of whom Socinus was one ] make to each other. The single exception we allude to is the article relative to the divine mission of Christ, and this, upon the principles of the rationalist, becomes a matter of very trivial importance the moment that the disciple of Lord Herbert conscientiously declares that he has already acquired all that is essential to the system of both parties from separate and independent sources, even from that light which comes directly to us from heaven, and which shines not through the contracted medium of any one “particular” religion.

In his reply to the scheme of Lord Herbert, Mr. Halyburton sets himself largely and distinctly to show that the light of nature is extremely defective, even with respect to the discoveries of a Deity, and the worship that is to be rendered to him; with respect to the question of man’s true happiness, the rule of duty, and the motives to obedience; and that it is unable to discover the means of obtaining pardon for sin, or to eradicate inclinations to sin, and subdue its power. He appeals to reason, to testimony, to matter of fact, and to the general experience of the world. He afterwards considers distinctly the articles to which Lord Herbert reduces his catholic religion, and explodes the evidence which he advances in favour of their universality. He takes up the arguments of Mr Blount and Mr Gildon on the same subject, and gives to them in succession a fair and solid refutation.

It was in France and Italy that the new scheme of Deism, as it was then called, for the first time reared its head, about the beginning of the seventeenth century. The men who patronised it were, generally speaking, distinguished for learning, ingenuity and sparkling wit. They wrote after the model of the new philosophers, who scorned that philosophical slavery which former ages had been under to Aristotle. Their appeal was to reason, and it is not to be wondered at that their plain and plausible statements and arguments should have produced on thinking minds a powerfully favourable impression, in countries where the dominant system was one of priestcraft, superstition and folly. Nearly about the same time, some novel opinions began to be entertained and published in Holland, a country which has ever been considered as pretty safely removed from the region of religious Quixotism and romance. These novelties were rapidly thrown into a form very near akin to Socinianism, “which,” says Mr Halyburton, “is but a remove from Deism.” It was not long before these new opinions took footing in England, and, to use the language of the professor, “they began to be embraced and countenanced by some topping churchmen; who, forgetful of their own articles, homilies, and subscriptions, carefully maintained and zealously propagated this new divinity.” It appears that at the period in question, the Jesuits of Rome were suspected of having had a deep concern in disseminating those opinions.

Rushworth, in his “Collections,” repeatedly notices the boasting of the Jesuits, “that they had planted such a drug in England as would soon purge out the northern heresy.” [2] “Once make men Atheists” it has been shrewdly and solidly remarked, “and it will be easy to turn them into Papists.” Those who observe what is passing around us in the present day, will not fail to notice a striking parallel with the above case in our own experience. The unnatural and monstrous alliance betwixt infidelity and Romanism, betwixt the men who plead for the most extravagant licentiousness of opinion on the one hand, and the men who would subjugate every mind and every sentiment to the Procrustes’ sway [ uniformity by violent means ] of the Vatican on the other, is one of the most ominous peculiarities of the present times. The phenomenon as it appears now may be explained on the same principle which the Jesuit avowed two centuries ago. Anything that will crush the “northern heresy” of Protestantism, or sap its foundations, must be acceptable to that church which has never been wanting in its practical application of the principle, that “the end sanctifies the means.” Dr Leland, in noticing the work of Mr Halyburton, whom he properly terms “a learned and pious author,” remarks that “the narrowness of his notions on some points hath prejudiced some persons against his work, and hindered them from regarding and considering it so much as it deserves.” The author of that invaluable work, the “View of Deistical Writers,” was, like our author, “a learned and pious divine,” but, while the “learning” of the two was alike profound and extensive, the “piety” of the one was of a different cast, and nurtured in a different school, from that of the other. The “piety” of Halyburton was that of a heart deeply exercised, and of a conscience ever tenderly alive to the sensibilities of spiritual feeling. Leland was a man of powerful and commanding intellect, and the bulwarks of Zion may well boast of having such a defender; but his feelings were not deeply interested in the cause which he so ably maintained, and his practical contexture and habits wanted exceedingly the seasoning of an evangelical spirit.

It need not surprise us, then, to find, that, in the estimate of a liberal Protestant, Halyburton should have been considered as a man of rather “narrow notions.” He flourished at a time when his country had been, for a succession of years, tutored in the school of libertinism and Popery combined, and when his much loved church had learned, from sad experience, what her children might expect from the sad union of a low standard of doctrine with the high and persecuting claims of a dominant hierarchy. He appreciated aright the vast importance of a strict and unbending adherence to the grand peculiarities of “the faith once delivered unto the saints,” while he practically denounced, as anti-Christian, the modish speculations of “philosophical Christians.” He justly attached far more importance than Dr Leland would have done to the points at issue betwixt the Episcopalians and Presbyterians of the period, though no man was more ready to do honour to the conscientious and consistent adherent of any form of ecclesiastical sway. He had not learned as yet that Episcopacy had any peculiar claims on Scotland and on Scotsmen for the choice blessings she had conferred, nor had he learned that “Presbyterianism was a religion unfit for a gentleman.” That style of preaching, then so much in vogue in England, which substituted heathen morality in place of the gospel of Christ, had no charms for him, and if this learned defender of the faith was really a man of “narrow notions,” it must, at any rate, be allowed to him that he wanted not capacity to “give a reason” for adopting and maintaining them. “After men,” says he, “once were taught that the controverted doctrines of religion were not necessary to salvation, and that all that was necessary thereto, was to be referred to, and comprehended under, morality, and that there was no need of regeneration, or the sanctifying influence of the Spirit of Christ, in order to the performance of our duty; it is easy to see how slight the difference was to be accounted between a Christian and an honest moral heathen. And if any small temptation offered, how natural was it for men to judge that the hazard was not great to step over from Christianity to Deism, which is Paganism Ó la mode!” The learned and pious clergymen of the Church of Scotland, whose testimonials in favour of Mr Halyburton’s work are so creditable to themselves and to him, were not men of “narrow notions,” and yet they were not the patrons of a cold and generalised theology. After stating their high sense of the importance and necessity of the work, they thus express themselves: “We, therefore, wishing and hoping that these posthumous labours of the reverend author may, through the blessing of God, prove useful and profitable for promoting and confirming the serious and unbiased reader in the true Christian faith, do earnestly recommend to him the diligent perusal of them, and him, in using of them, to the grace of God for that effect.” Here the grace of God is recognised as specially necessary to produce a conviction of the truth, and the design of the study of the evidences of Christianity is clearly recognised as of a practical and experimental character. The men who thus recommend the work were among the truest and best of the members of the Church of Scotland in the beginning of last century; and no man whose opinion is worth a straw will feel himself disgraced by standing on the same platform with the three principals, Carstairs, Wishart and Haddow, or with Professor Hamilton of Edinburgh. A late eminent minister among the Dissenters in England, Dr Edward Williams, in his “Christian Preacher,” has concurred with these able men in attesting the work as one “of great solidity and worth.” The late excellent Mr Newton of London, in writing to Mr Scott, the distinguished author of the Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, and the “Force of Truth,” thus expresses himself in regard to the work on Natural and Revealed Religion, and generally with respect to the other writings of the same author: “I set a high value,” says he “on this book of Halyburton’s, so that, unless I could replace it with another, I know not if I would part with it for its weight in gold.

The first, and largest treatise is, in my judgement, a masterpiece; but I would chiefly wish you to peruse the essay “Concerning Faith,” towards the close of the book. I need not beg of you to read it carefully, and to read it all. The importance of the subject, its immediate connection with your inquiries, and the accuracy of the reasoning, will render my request unnecessary. I cannot style him a very elegant writer, and, being a Scotsman, he abounds in the Scottish idiom. But you will prefer truth to ornament. I long to hear your opinion of it. It seems to me so adapted to some things that have passed between us, as if written on purpose.” [3] The same excellent author, in writing to another friend, the Rev. Mr R—, regarding the Infralapsarian and the Supralapsarian schemes, thus remarks: “At the close of Halyburton’s “Insufficiency of Natural Religion,” he has an inquiry into the nature of Regeneration and Justification, wherein he proposes a scheme in which, if I mistake not, the moderate of both parties might safely unite.” [4] The late Dr Thomas Gibbons of London, author of the “Memoirs of Eminently Pious Women,” and other useful works, has recorded his opinion of our author, in a few lines, not remarkable, indeed, for their harmonious versification, but containing an important statement of fact:

“Sheath’d in celestial armour, and lifting high
The sword, invincible, of truth divine,
See HALYBURTON on the mounds, the camp 
Of Deism rush, and triumph o’er its powers!” [5]

But there are men – of learning and piety too – who limit not their approbation of Halyburton’s works to the learning and the talent which his work against the Deists displays. Mr Bridges, in his most excellent work on the “Christian Ministry,” refers to the “Memoirs” of Halyburton, as giving the most graphical delineations of the diversified desires of the mind in conviction of sin; and Mr Jones, in his “Christian Biography” has said of Mr Halyburton, that “his last words are among the richest treasures which piety ever bequeathed to the church, and the letters which he dictated on his dying bed are specimens of his unparalleled devotion and concern for the welfare of others.” Dr Isaac Watts – no mean man, certainly – has written prefaces to most of Mr Halyburton’s works, and he thus expresses his sentiments regarding him: “Besides his solid learning, his clear and penetrating judgement, his acute reasoning, his eminent piety, and other excellent endowments, there was one thing I could not but highly value in his converse, that, according to the apostle’s advice, Ephesians 4:29, what proceeded out of his mouth was ‘good, to the use of edifying,’ which might ‘minister grace to the hearers:’ so that I may truly say, I was seldom in his company, but it was mine own fault if I was not edified.” “The author and subject of this narrative,” says he, speaking of his Memoirs, “was a man of great piety, bright natural parts, studious learning, and uncommon penetration and judgement, as sufficiently appears in his other writings; yet there is such a vein of humility and honesty, that runs through every page, that you may see the secret workings of his thoughts through his holy language.” “Here we find reason and learning giving their testimony to the gospel, and to the power of godliness, with a living pen and with dying lips.” Of the Memoirs it has been justly said, “that scarcely is there a position which was ever taken up by the enmity of man against the mercy of his Maker, but was occupied by him, and resolutely maintained, till it was driven from under him; and scarcely, we should think, can a ‘refuge of lies’ be entered by those who came after him, but was previously entered by him, and made his resting place, till he found it to be no shelter. In short, the history of his advance towards Christianity, solely in its direction, so full of incident, and so frequently obstructed by relapses with the repose which he tasted on his arrival at it, and the growth of character in his after-years, all opening upon us so graphically, so richly interwoven with scriptural references, and coming in so aptly on our past or present experience is a treasury of instruction which ought by no means to be shut up from the present generation.” [6] It is not an unpromising symptom of the theological taste of the present age, that the writings of such men as Owen, and Baxter, and Howe, and Halyburton, and Edwards, are rising in demand. These are the masters in our Israel. They wield the sword of the Spirit with masculine skill, and just in proportion as we tread in their footsteps and plead the same cause with them, may we expect the blessing of heaven to shine upon our efforts. It is not necessary that we imitate them in their peculiarities of a style and phraseology which belong to an age that is gone by, but it is necessary that we imitate them in adherence to those eternal truths, which no age can antiquate, and which no revolutions in the Church can change.

Amid the diversities of opinion, truth remains the same, and a church which is built on the “foundation of apostles and prophets,” with Jesus Christ as its “chief corner-stone,” has the pledge of heaven in its favour. If it falls, it must be because “Ichabod” has been previously inscribed on its ruined battlements. If its standards and its discipline are doomed to rank among the things which have been, it will be because the “spirit of the fathers” has not “turned to the children.” If our heavens shall become as brass, and our earth hard as iron, it is because we have grieved the Holy Spirit; “and therefore he hath turned to be our enemy, and fought against us.” Mr Halyburton flourished at a period when the Church of Scotland had just emerged from the darkness of that gloomy night of persecution which had settled around her for the long space of nearly thirty years. He was not properly one of the Covenanters, but he had drunk deeply into their spirit, a spirit of uncompromising adherence to the cause of truth, and unflinching fidelity to the league of the faithful. His parents had shared of the cup of suffering. His earliest and strongest attachments were formed in the school of adversity, and he entered on the service of the church with all the ardour of a mind tutored by experience.

The labours in which he engaged as a pastoral superintendent of one of the parishes of his native district, together with his known learning, his commanding talents, and his decided piety, recommended him as a fit person to be the instructor of the “sons of the prophets,” in one of the seminaries of the Scottish Israel, and he began his career in the theological chair at St Andrews under the most promising auspices. It pleased the great Head of the church to spare him only a short time to edify the church in that important station. In the lapse of two years, he was called from the labours and anxieties of the church-militant on earth, to the rest and the glories of the churchtriumphant in heaven. His life, though short spoke volumes, and his death-bed scene addressed survivors in language more solemn, and with an energy more pungent, than the living voice could command.

Robert Burns
PAISLEY, Oct. 17. 1832.

ENDNOTES:

[1] Halyburton’s Works have been re-published in 2000-2005 by the James Begg Society in four volumes, including some sermons and other material of Halyburton’s never before published.

[2] Rushworth, Collections, Vol. 1, p. 475; and Letter by a Jesuit, p. 62.

[3] John Newton, Cardiphonia, Vol. 1, Letter 2, to Mr Scott.

[4] John Newton, Cardiphonia, Vol. 2.

[5] Dr. Thomas Gibbons, poem: The Christian Minister.

[6] Young’s Essay, introductory to Halyburton’s memoirs in some editions.

This is a website of

The James Begg Society