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James Foster

One of the brightest ornaments of the school of liberal and rational divines among the Protestant dissenters in the earlier part of the last century, was born at Exeter, September 16, 1697. His grandfather was a clergyman at Kettering, in Northamptonshire; but his father having been brought up by a Nonconformist uncle, himself embraced the same religious profession. His mother is spoken of as a woman of great worth and excellence; and he may, therefore, probably be added to the list of eminent men, in various departments of life, who have derived from maternal influence and example no small portion of the virtues and graces which afterwards distinguished them. He received the first part of his education at the free school of his native city; where he is said to have given early indications of talent and proficiency. He afterwards became a member of the academy already spoken of as conducted by Mr. Hallet, at which several other men of high and deserved eminence were prepared for the Christian ministry. Here we are informed1 that ‘he was admired by his tutor and fellow-students as having natural abilities superior to most, a quick apprehension, a solid judgment, a happy memory, a free commanding elocution. In his public exercises his thoughts were clear, his talents for argumentation [165] great, his modesty and integrity remarkable; and for the strictness of his piety, the candour of his spirit, the tenderness and benevolence of his heart, he was highly esteemed. From his first coming to the academy, he had a sovereign contempt of human authority in all matters of religious opinion, faith, and practice. Nothing would convince him short of reason and argument.’

Mr. Foster began to preach in the year 1718, when the violent ferment of religious bigotry which terminated in the expulsion from their charges of his tutor and his colleague Mr. Peirce, was rapidly coming to a crisis. And we cannot doubt that, independently of the personal influence of his instructor, who was so deeply involved in this memorable struggle, the naturally enlarged and liberal mind of Foster would lead him to take a warm interest in the controversy, and to resent, in terms perhaps stronger and less measured than his more cautious and discreet seniors would permit themselves to use, the extravagant and inconsistent proceedings of those who, when only beginning to enjoy a toleration themselves, attempted to impose articles of faith upon others. He already began to display those qualifications as a preacher which afterwards raised him to so much distinction; and there can be no doubt that, if he had belonged to the popular party, he would presently have been called upon to take a leading place as the minister of some numerous and considerable congregation. But he had from the first espoused the liberal principles which characterized him through life; and at this period of strong religious excitement, clamours rose high against him; for his notions of integrity and sincerity could [166] not be satisfied, like those of many in similar circumstances, with a systematic concealment of what he believed to be divine truth. He had formed his judgment, and he felt himself bound to declare it, and to appear publicly in defence of it. Nor was it possible at that time distinctly to foresee to what extent the clamour and violence of the hostile party, already excited to a high degree of bitterness, might carry them. Intolerant laws were in being, which, though they lay dormant, had been passed at no such distant period that they could as yet be said to be in any sense obsolete; and the rigorous treatment which had actually been experienced by that eminent Christian divine and confessor, Thomas Emlyn, was still fresh in every one's recollection.

At length he accepted of an invitation to settle with a congregation at Milbourne Port, in Somersetshire, where, however, he does not appear to have remained long. His unpopular sentiments on the points in dispute soon made him obnoxious to a prevailing party, whose influence rendered his situation so uneasy, that he was induced to retire to the house of his friend, the Rev. N. Billingsley, of Ashwick, near the Mendip hills; a gentleman who seems to have afforded a temporary asylum to more than one young man of merit when labouring under the stigma of heresy in these troubled times. While in this secluded retreat, Mr. Foster undertook the charge of two plain congregations in that wild district, which together raised him only fifteen pounds a year. Some of his best works are said to have been composed in an old summer house, almost covered with ivy, on the property of J. Billingsley, Esq., [167] who caused a small stone with the following inscription to be placed in the building:—

‘Sacred to the memory of the celebrated James Foster, D. D., who in this humble and retired mansion, secluded from the fury of bigots and the cares of a busy world, spent several years, and composed many of those excellent discourses on natural religion and social virtue (with the annexed offices of devotion) which have been read with universal admiration during the last and present ages; and which, while they exhibit to posterity the most beautiful display of the divine attributes and important duties of human life, will immortalize the name and memory of their learned and pious author.’2

Notwithstanding these discouraging circumstances, and the small prospect which the prevailing state of public feeling on the religious disputes of the day held out to him of acquiring that acceptance and opportunity of usefulness for which his dispositions and character fitted him, and to which his eminent talents entitled him to aspire, he still retained great cheerfulness, and pursued his studies with undiminished application. ‘His chief view,’ says a worthy divine who knew him well, ‘was to maintain his own integrity and to promote the honour of his great Lord; bearing difficulties with a rational firmness and calm submission to the Divine will.’3 He was, doubtless, earnestly desirous to be actively employed in his Master's cause, and in the exercise [168] of the Christian ministry in some distinguished field, for which his education and abilities had well prepared him; but he would not stoop, even for this purpose, to mean and dishonest compliances, or to an outward conformity with what he believed to be contrary to the revealed word of God.

Here he wrote his celebrated Essay on Fundamentals in Religion, which was first published in 1720. This tract, considering the circumstances in which it was written, the condition of the writer, and the temper of the times, is certainly a very remarkable production. It contains not only a just and clear statement of the principles by which we are to determine what is and what is not fundamental in religion, (that is, essential to the character of a true Christian whom God approves and will accept), but an honest and manly declaration of his own sentiments, and his determination to cast in his lot with the calumniated confessors who had recently suffered loss and gone through evil report for avowing the conclusions to which they had been led by their unbiassed inquiries into scripture. He lays down these two principles,—‘that no doctrine is a fundamental and necessary article of a Christian's faith, but what is so plainly and distinctly revealed that an ordinary Christian, sincere and honest in his inquiries, cannot miss of the knowledge of it; and, secondly, that it is not sufficient that a proposition be clearly revealed to make it fundamental, but a belief of it must also be made an express term or condition of happiness in the sacred writings.’ It is impossible to suppose that an infinitely wise and good Being should [169] have made the blessing of his dependent in conditions—which his moral creatures might not be competent to fulfil; or on just views of obscure and doubtful points on which honest and inquiring men, in the conscientious use of the faculties which he had given them, and the sources of information which he had placed within their reach, might differ. To suppose this, espcially when consequences of such overwhelming importance in both directions, are represented as being dependent on a right or a wrong faith on these points, would be to make Christianity a curse rather than a blessing. Again, if there be any tenets properly fundamental, in the sense in which this term is frequently used, (such, namely, that except a man believe in them he cannot be saved,) we should at least expect to find them distinctly expressed, not merely in catechisms and creeds, but by that authority which can alone establish the terms and conditions of salvation. Hence it follows, ‘that no Christian who has the Liberty of looking into his Bible, and who uses that liberty, can err in fundamentals; so that none of the points which are at present debated by great numbers on all sides, and on which opposite opinions are undeniably maintained, in all honesty, by perfectly sincere and conscientious men, can be essential to salvation.’ The author then proceeds to enter somewhat more into particulars, aid to apply these general principles to the scriptural evidence adduced in support of the Trinitarian scheme, to shew that it is nowhere even expressly maintained or asserted in the new Testament; but is only deduced by its supporters as a consequence or inference from [170] what is revealed, and is still further from being prescribed as a positive term or condition of salvation, and therefore utterly fails in both the criterion by which we are to estimate the claims of any tenet to be included in the catalogue of supposed fundamentals.

Here and elsewhere the author espouses the Arian principles of Peirce and Emlyn, which the talents and well-earned reputation of these distinguished men rendered almost universally prevalent among the English Anti-trinitarians of that period; but the exposure of the leading tenets of Calvinism, and particularly of the entire absence of any adequate scriptural evidence for them, though concise, is very distinct and complete. While he admits (or rather takes for granted, without assigning any direct evidence for his conclusion) that a species of worship is due from his disciples to Christ in his character of Mediator, he labours to distinguish between this subordinate homage and the supreme worship paid to the Father only. But on what principle this sort of subordinate worship is to be reconciled with that solemn injunction of him to whom it is proposed to be addressed, ‘In that day ye shall ask me nothing, but whatever ye shall ask, the Father in my name, he will give it you,’ he nowhere attempts to explain. On the strength, we presume, of this modified homage, which, Unitarians, according to him, are justified in offering to their Saviour, he seems to think that the two parties might conscientiously unite in the same religious services. Here, however, lies the prinpal weakness of his argument, which proves only that most of the points on which the contending [171] parties differ are not essential to salvation, or necessary to furnish a basis for the practical principles, the hopes, and promises of the Gospel; —that this is to be found, and to be found only, in that treasure of undisputed truth which is held alike by all sects, every where, and at all times; ‘quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus.’ This he proves triumphantly; but it does not therefore follow, that he who believes that Christ is the proper object of supreme worship, though he should allow that his Unitarian brother possesses the essentials of the Gospel, could reconcile it to his conscience to confine himself to that form of worship in which alone the latter could unite. Here it seems unavoidable that the two parties should travel in separate paths, and charitably agree to differ.

The publication attracted considerable attention, and raised a great additional clamour against the author, from those who had recently been excited by so much bigoted animosity against what they were pleased to style the ‘new notions;’ and who were incessant in their endeavours not to refute his arguments, but to blacken his character, and render him obnoxious to the illiberal and narrow-minded. Their conduct, however, in this respect, did not provoke him to a retaliation unworthy of his enlightened and candid mind, or lead him to forget what was due from a consistent follower of a meek and suffering Saviour; so that he might say with the Apostle, ‘being reviled we bless, being persecuted we suffer it, being defamed we entreat.’

From Ashwick, Mr. Foster, after some time, removed to Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, where was [172] a small Presbyterian congregation, not consisting at that time of more than twenty or thirty persons. Here, in consequence of reading Dr. Gale's Treatise on Infant Baptism, he was induced to give up that practice, and to acknowledge his belief that the baptism of adults by immersion is the true scriptural rite;—in conformity with which conviction he was soon afterwards baptized cacording to that mode in London. Whatever may be our opinion as to the correctness of his conclusion on this controverted point, it cannot be doubted that by thus avowing and publicly acting on his conviction, he gave a strong proof of that integrity and disinterested attachment to what he conceived to be the truth, which he had already evinced, and which continued throughout life to be a leading feature of his character. For his public adoption of this opinion and practice must, of necessity, have materially narrowed the field in which he might reasonably hope for an invitation to labour as a Christian minister. Most of the congregations which at that period adopted more liberal principles, and, consequently, deviated from Calvinism, were of the Presbyterian denomination, among whom it was reasonable to presume that his rejecting the practice of infant baptism would be a material, if not an insuperable obstacle; while the number of Baptist congregations, with whom his heretical opinions would not be a decisive objection, was at that time exceedingly small.

With his little flock at Trowbridge, the change did not operate to his disadvantage; but still the sphere was so very limited, and the support they were able to afford him so very scanty, that he [173] had serious thoughts of betaking himself to a secular employment, and with this view set about learning the trade of glove-making, which was the occupation of the person with whom he lodged. At this time, however, he met with a kind and valuable friend in Robert Houlston, Esq., who took him into his house in the capacity of domestic chaplain, and treated him with much kindness and generosity; for which he did not fail to come in for his share of the obloquy and abuse heaped upon his protege by those who, in the superabundance of their zeal for what they held to be Christian truth, were but too apt to forget Christian charity. A virulent pamphlet, in reply to the Essay on Fundamentals, supposed to be written by a clergyman, falls foul both upon the author and his patron, calling the one a deceiver and an antichrist, and invoking the displeasure of heaven upon the other for harbouring a pestilent heretic.

During his residence with Mr. Houlston, an opportunity was afforded to Mr. Foster of cultivating a more extended and varied intercourse with general society, in which his talents and character gained him much acceptance. Here, however, he did not continue long; for in the year 1724, on the death of Dr. Gale, he was invited by the Baptist congregation in Barbican, London, to become their minister; and on the first of July in that year was ordained to this charge as colleague with Mr. Burroughs, with whom he laboured in the pastoral connexion with the utmost cordiality for more than twenty years. Thus he was enabled, much sooner than could at one time have been anticipated, to enter upon the [174] reward of that integrity which marked the trying scenes of his outset in life,—‘A reward which is not, indeed, allotted by the wise and gracious Governor of the universe for all who in the same situation may have proved themselves equally sincere, but which is, however, abundantly and richly compensated by those inward consolations and joys that have in innumerable instances so well supported the upright and honest mind under the want of it. But, surely, there would be the utmost impropriety in supposing that the reward of virtue must needs debase its honour and diminish its worth. On the contrary, its natural tendency is to animate and confirm it.’4

In the year 1728, Mr. Foster engaged in a Sunday evening lecture at the Old Jewry, which he continued as long as his powers of body and mind remained, with a degree of popularity at that time unexampled among dissenting ministers. ‘Here,’ says Dr. Fleming, ‘was a confluence of persons of every rank, station, and quality—wits, free-thinkers, numbers of clergy; who, while they gratified their curiosity, had their prepossessions shaken, and their prejudices loosened. And of the usefulness and success of these lectures, he had a large number of written testimonials from unknown as well as known persons. The flowers of oratory grew here upon the plant of divide truth and reason, from which his audience might gather fruit of the highest mental taste and moral complexion. And what gave the finishing stroke of this character was, that his popularity did not rob him of his humility [175] and modesty, nor injure his Christianity. He used no delusive arts to bribe the passions, to play with the imagination, and so impose on the understanding. He had no ambiguities, no disguises; but whatever he thought an important truth, he delivered with freedom, and without reserve.’

Mr. Foster's modesty, and uncommon talents as a preacher, it is well known, have been immortalized by Pope in one of those striking epigrammatic couplets which exhibit the poet's remarkable and somewhat formidable power over the character and reputation of men, by which, as the humour seized him, he knew how to ‘damn to everlasting fame,’ or ‘pay a life of hardship by a line.’

Let modest Foster, if he will, excel
Ten metropolitans in preaching well.

In the year 1731, our author appeared in the field as an advocate for revelation, in the controversy which was at that time actively agitated with Morgan, Tindal, Woolston, and other well-known deistical writers, and which produced or suggested some of the most valuable contributions to our collection of works on the evidences of religion, both natural and revealed. In this respect it certainly afforded a remarkable practical illustration of the great principle openly maintained and defended by several of the most distinguished champions of revelation, especially among the dissenters; and not only maintained, but perhaps more fully acted upon in practice than it had ever been on any former occasion;— the advantage which truth must ever gain from a [176] perfect freedom of discussion on both sides, unbiassed by the interference of the civil magistrate.

Mr. Foster's treatise is entitled ‘The Usefulness, Truth, and Excellency of the Christian Revelation defended against the Objections contained in a late Book, intitled Christianity as old as the creation.’ It is introduced by the following just and liberal statement of the principles on which such discussions ought always to be conducted: ‘As religion is of the highest importance to mankind, free debates about it ought, above all things, to be encouraged. This is the only way to settle the true nature of it, and fix it upon a solid foundation, that truth and falsehood, superstition and rational piety, may not equally prevail under that venerable name; and to support it by methods of restraint and violence is not only an infringement of the most sacred natural rights of mankind, but a dishonour to religion itself. It makes a good cause suspected, and gives every little insinuation of its adversaries, without proof, the air of probability. And as all honest men have no concern but for truth, and never suffer their passions, prejudices, or worldly interests to influence their religious inquiries, they can desire nothing more than that the argument should be clearly stated, and urged in its utmost strength on both sides; and must be as ready to give up any particular scheme of religion on sufficient evidence of its falsehood, as they were to defend and propagate it while they believed it to be true. Let those who do not believe the Christian religion be allowed to throw off all disguises, and attack it with all the skill and strength of argument they are capable of [177] Let not such as write in defence of it claim any privilege above their opponents, merely because they write on the popular and orthodox side of the question, since the natural rights of both parties are equal. We need not be afraid of the consequences; for truth can never suffer by being brought to the most critical test of impartial reason; and it is the interest of mankind that falsehood should be detected and exposed.’

The author then enlarges, first, on the advantage of a revelation, and particularly of the Christian, and on the use and evidence of miracles. The main argument of his opponent's treatise, as its title implies, was intended to shew that the doctrines and principles of Christianity, in as far as they are just and rational, are such as men might have discovered for themselves; and, in fact, had in many instances ascertained and acknowledged. To this it is justly replied, that even if all this were granted, it would not prove a revelation superfluous, if it appears that mankind had placed themselves in such circumstances, that prevailing ignorance, the force of unconquerable prejudices, idolatry, superstition, and wickedness, had depraved their minds and perverted their understandings. Whatever might be the natural powers of the human understanding, or whatever might be the cause of the delusion and ignorance under which men almost universally laboured, it must, at least, be admitted that these lamentable effects did exist; that as long as they existed, they were inconsistent with the true improvement and happiness of man, and therefore it is consistent with our views of divine [178] wisdom and goodness to conclude that especial means would be adopted to dispel this delusion, and diffuse the influence of light and truth.

In this sense it might even be granted, that the gospel was nothing more than a ‘republication of the religion of nature;’ even though it could be shewn that a time had actually existed in some primeval golden age, when the most honourable notions of the Divine perfections and character, and the purest principles of religion and morality were generally professed and acknowledged, and that these principles, so influencing the practice of men, had, in the first instance, been investigated and ascertained, and recommended to the general acceptance by the arguments and persuasions of philosophers, guided to the truth by the solitary torch of unaided human reason,—though all this could be made out, still if this religion of nature had become obsolete, and if mankind, by whatever means, had relapsed into such a state that it was no longer probable that the torch should be again illuminated, still less that its guidance should be generally followed, we can hardly allow it to be any imputation on the wisdom of God, that in the fulness of time he saw fit to substitute in its place the daylight of Gospel truth. Yet, after all, it appears that, with respect to many of the distinguishing principles of Christianity, all that can be alleged is, that when they are made known by an authority competent to discover and establish them, they approve themselves to our reason as consistent, right and good. But it does not follow, that what human reason is ready to acknowledge under [179] these characters, when made known by external instruction, it would have been able to search out and ascertain by its own unassisted exertions.

In the view which our author has given of the evidence derived from miracles, he makes some concessions which the truth does not appear to require, and which might affect materially the validity of the argument founded upon them. He allows, indeed, that we can easily pronounce concerning any appearance alleged to be miraculous, that it exceeds the limits of human power or knowledge, and consequently implies the introduction of a superior agency; but he does not see any good reason why such miracles (by which term, in this connexion, he intends merely such works as no human being could perform) should not be ascribed to superior created beings, who, for any thing we know to the contrary, may be permitted to interfere in the direction of events in this world, in a manner imperceptible to us, and so as to produce effects which vastly exceed the natural agency of the immediate and visible instruments. Hence, as we know not what degree of power such agents may possess, and have no positive proof that they may not be at the same time depraved and wicked, it would seem that we have no criterion in the nature of the things themselves to enable us to say that any works are properly miraculous, that is, that they afford a direct evidence of a divine commission. In order to determine this point, we have no other resource, according to him, but to compare the alleged revelation with the dictates of our own reason; if that pronounces it to be worthy of the source from which it professes to emanate, [180] we receive it; if otherwise, no miracles could give it authority. ‘For instance, (p. 53,) if a person pretends to bring a revelation from heaven that directly recommends and encourages intemperance, injustice, and cruelty, and such like notorious and hurtful immoralities, I cannot see how any common man, who makes the least use of that understanding which God hath given him, can be imposed upon to embrace a scheme so destructive of the plainest obligations of virtue, and of the peace and happiness of the world, by ten thousand miracles. He has it in his power easily to detect the falsehood of all such doctrines, how pompously so ever they are supported. From what has been said, it appears that miracles alone do not prove the truth of any religion, because we cannot pretend to say of any miraculous effects, at least not of most of the miracles which are recorded in the Old and New Testaments, that they are performed by God only.’

To all this it seems enough to reply, that if absurd suppositions are made, it cannot be wondered at, that absurd conclusions should follow. We deny, not only that the case here supposed ever did happen, but that it ever could happen. It is a supposition inconsistent with the views we cannot but form of the infinite wisdom which directs the moral government of the world. In fact, we have no ground, either from reason or revelation, to suppose that superior created beings are empowered, at their own discretion, to take any part in the affairs of this earth, or in any manner to influence the condition or conduct of mankind, still less to alter or controul the ordinary course of events, so as to produce effects [181] apparently miraculous, for the purpose of deluding us by a false show of divine revelation. It may be said, that none but an evil and wicked spirit would avail himself of such a power to give a delusive sanction to erroneous and pernicious principles; and therefore the internal evidence, the intrinsic excellence of the system itself, as estimated by our own understandings, is conclusive proof of the reality of the miracle, and, consequently, of the divine authority of the message. But may it not be supposed that good spirits, like some well-meaning but mistaken men, may seek to deceive us with a ‘pious fraud,’ in support of a system which, though without foundation, the wise and good might wish to be true? The concession, therefore, is a most dangerous one; but, happily, neither the history of the world, nor the appearance of things around us, affords the smallest countenance to such a supposition, which is, besides, contradicted by the views that both nature and reason encourage us to form of the agency of the One Supreme, as bringing about, by its direct and immediate operation, the various phenomena which we behold.

In the succeeding chapter, the author vindicates the conduct of Divine Providence, in not making the Christian revelation universally known; shewing that this is conformable to what we see around us in the various distribution of the other gifts of his bounty; and, consequently, that any objection to revelation, proceeding upon this ground, would prove too much, since it applies equally to those advantages and benefits which the votary of natural religion, if he believes in a providence at all, cannot but ascribe to its agency. In the [182] third chapter he examines more particularly the external evidence of revelation, ‘shewing that we have a sufficient probability, even at this distance, of the authenticness, credibility, and purity of the books of the New Testament; and that the common people are able to judge of the truth and uncorruptedness of a traditional religion; with an answer to the arguments drawn from the change of languages, the different use of words, the style and phrase of scripture, &c., to prove it to be an obscure, perplexed, and uncertain rule.’ The work concludes with a vindication of positive institutions; particularly of the few and simple positive ordinances of the Gospel. In various parts of the work we have an able exposure of the manner in which sceptical writers are apt to confound the corruptions of Christianity with Christianity itself,—an artifice for which the unhappy differences among Christians, and the multitudes of unauthorized additions, commandments of men, often foreign to the spirit and inconsistent with the tendency and design of the Gospel, have at all times afforded but too much scope.

On the whole, this treatise is written with great clearness of thought and expression, and reflects much credit on the abilities and ingenuity of the author. It met with such general approbation from the judicious and candid of all parties, that repeated impressions were soon demanded by the public. Even Dr. Tindal, against whose work it was written, is said always to have spoken of of it with great respect. In one particular it certainly well deserves to be held up as a model for controversial treatises; that its attack is [183] confined altogether to the doctrine and arguments of his opponent, and these are examined with fairness and candour, without any attempt to prejudice the reader, or to resort to any of those artifices by which the disputants, not for truth but for victory, or for something more sordid and unworthy still, too commonly seek to divert the attention from the main question, and make the worse appear the better cause. As, on the one hand, he utterly disclaims and repudiates the dubious alliance of the civil magistrate, as rather weakening than promoting the cause it aims to support, in the estimation of the candid and reflecting, so, on the other, he makes no attempt to depreciate the character, or diminish the influence of his antagonist by injurious imputations. We cannot but be persuaded, that if the votaries of the truth had always shewn the same well-grounded confidence in the intrinsic strength of their cause, so as to disclaim the use of such unhallowed weapons, the interests of religion and virtue would have been greatly promoted, and many apparent and temporary triumphs to infidelity,—triumphs due not to its own evidence or the ability of its advocates, but to the skill with which they have taken advantage of the short-sighted policy of the friends of revelation,—would have been altogether prevented.

In 1734, Mr. Foster published a volume of sermons, which speedily attracted a degree of attention proportioned to that which they had received when delivered from the pulpit. Three additional volumes made their appearance successively,—the last in 1744. These sermons certainly possess very considerable merit; but it [184] is not exactly the kind of merit which the traditionary accounts of the extraordinary popularity of their author, as a preacher, and the crowds of all ranks and classes who are said to have flocked to hear him, and that not for a short time, or on a few occasions only, but through a period of more than twenty years, would have led us to anticipate. For it would be difficult to select from the whole range of English pulpit eloquence any compositions which indicated less solicitude in the author to please the ear of the multitude, or to aim at the showy but inferior character of the mere ‘popular preacher.’ They are mostly plain and practical,—serious and augmentative—evangelical in the best and only proper sense of the word. They are well fitted to illustrate the remark which has frequently been made, that the real vital faith of Christians is, in a great measure, one and the same; depending not on sectarian peculiarities,—not on those points which have been chiefly the subjects of controversy and debate, but on the broad and comprehensive truths relating to the perfections and providence of God, the heavenly message of the gospel of Christ, and the duties and expectations of men as founded upon it, which are at once of primary importance, and so simple in their character and clear in their evidence, that they are held alike by all sects, and have never been the subjects of dispute. But the consequence is, as we might naturally conclude from our author's rational good sense and sincerity, that there is throughout a complete absence of what prevailing parties have been accustomed to call the peculiar doctrines of the Gospel; and wherever there is a passing reference to [185] such distinctions, it is of a kind which might be expected immediately to alarm the prejudices of the self-styled orthodox. Again, the style of composition, though uniformly correct, and often what we might call elegant, presents surprisingly little of what would commonly be called oratory. It is for the most part, perfectly plain and simple, with no rhetorical ornaments or flights of declamation. It is calm reasoning, addressed almost exclusively to the understanding, in no instance seeking to rouse the passions, and with comparatively few attempts even to appeal to the imagination or interest the feelings.

These sermons are favourable specimens of what has sometimes been called the middle style is compositions of this sort; they rarely, if ever, aim at the higher flights of genius; and would, probably, be pronounced, for the most part, better fitted for the press than for the pulpit;—more likely to prove acceptable in the calm sobriety of the closet, than when addressed to the public congregation. It is true, that with the outward graces of an orator, Mr. Foster appears, by the reports of his contemporaries, to have been endowed in a high degree. ‘His voice,’ says one, ‘was naturally sweet, strong, distinct, harmonious; always adapted to his matter, always varied as his method changed, as expressive of the sense as the most judicious recitative. Monotony was a fault he was never guilty of. His action, the soul of eloquence, was grave, expressive, free from distortion, animated without being theatrical;—in short, such as became the pulpit. He reminded us of St. Paul, at Athens, arresting the attention of his auditors.’ But to say nothing of the unpopularity [186] of his theology, it may be doubted whether a preacher who had so little either of matter or of style to please the fancy, to excite the passions, or influence any of the warmer emotions of the soul, let his external accomplishments of action and manner be what they might, would now succeed, year after year, in drawing together a crowded auditory. In short, whether the changes in the habits and tastes of the present age, as compared with those of our ancestors a century ago, be in all respects an improvement, we will not undertake to determine; but we cannot help thinking, that a congregation, even among Unitsrians, who are generally supposed to be accustomed to a more subdued and merely argumentative style of preaching than most other denominations, if statedly addressed in the style of Foster's sermons, would be sensible of a deficiency in what is commonly called unction.

Though Mr. Foster did not frequently deal in what is styled doctrinal, still less in controversial, preaching, which would probably have been little suited to so miscellaneous an audience as he usually addressed, yet he betrays no desire to keep unpopular notions in the shade; there is no unworthy attempt, by the use of ambiguous phrase to pass off on the unthinking crowd the shadow of pretended orthodoxy, as if it were the substance. And, in several instances, he does not hesitate to take very decided ground on important controverted points of doctrine. Of this we have remarkable examples in his celebrated sermons on Mysteries, and on Heresy and Schism. A mystery, in the scripture sense, he explains to be a fact or doctrine which was revolting to human [187] prejudices, or not easy to be discovered by human reason, but which, now that it is made known, is perfectly distinct and intelligible; while the belief of propositions which are still mysterious, that is, to the terms of which we attach no ideas, is in its own nature, impossible.

In this sermon is introduced the often-quoted maxim, ‘Where mystery begins religion ends;’5 [188] which, however, was probably not original in Foster, as it has been quoted, in the same word, from a conversation with Bishop Fleetwood, who died in 1723, before Foster had acquired any distinction as a preacher.6

The sermon on Heresy involved our author in a lengthened controversy with one of the most noted polemics of the day, Dr. Stebbing, Chaplain to his Majesty, and Preacher at Gray's Inn. The text is Titus III. 10, 11, ‘A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted and sinneth, being condemned of himself.’ The term heretic, which occurs here only in the New Testament, denotes, according to our author, one that sets up to be head, or chooses to join himself to a particular religious party. When used, therefore, in a bad sense, a heretic must be one who knowingly espouses a false doctrine,—is insincere in his profession, and asserts and defends what he is convinced is contrary to Christianity, and, consequently, one who maintains and supports the interest of a faction to serve some base designs. Hence it follows that no mere error of judgment can be heresy. Secondly, That no honest man can be a heretic. Thirdly, That in most cases it is an unwarrantable presumption in those who are not endowed with the gift of discerning spirits to pronounce upon those who differ from them, that they are, in the obnoxious sense of the word, hether [189] point not brought prominently forward by either party, in which consists the real root of bitterness in the whole dispute. Dr. Stebbing's argument does not go to vindicate excommunication for heresy, as practised by the English and other established churches, still less the civil disabilities, and other evils of a secular nature, which have been, and still are, to a certain extent, attached to it; all which, though somewhat inconsistently, he distinctly disclaims, He only contends, that every church, (meaning, we presume, according to the definition in the article, ‘a congregation of faithful men, assembled for the worship of God, and professing faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,’) in order to act up to the spirit of the apostle's injunction, must exclude from its communion those whom it believes to be in pernicious error. As he does not assert for himself or his church the attribute of infallibility, it necessarily follows from hence, and, in fact, he concedes as much of his own accord, that the character of a heretic, as thus determined, is not absolute, but merely relative; ‘a man may be a heretic to one church who is not so to another, and a heretic to both, who is not so to God.’ After this concession, it is difficult to see what there is left between the parties which is worth a debate, unless it arise from considerations purely extraneous, namely, from the political and other worldly inconveniences now attached to the imputation of heresy. If a (so called) Christian church were in reality nothing more than what we have just defined it to be,—if no communities of any kind existed in the Christian world but ‘congregations of faithful men,’ united in such [190] retics. And, lastly, that the persons who come nearest to the character of heretics, as described by the apostle, are the violent party men who confine Christianity to their own faction, and excommunicate all who differ from them; the rigid imposers of human schemes of doctrine and modes of worship, as essential branches of religion. If it be said that such heretics as are to be rejected may be known by their fruits in the vicious lives they commonly lead, or in their attempts to sow division and excite jealousy and strife, it may be answered, that in that case it were better that they should be rejected for their immorality, which is open and clear, than for their heresy, of which we cannot so readily judge.

Dr. Stebbing's tracts in this controversy, especially his first letter, have quite a sufficient seasoning of supercilious dogmatism, and are replied to by Foster with spirit and acuteness, and, on the whole, with success. But it may be doubted whether a preliminary question has not been overlooked by both parties; how far the apostle's precept was meant to have any general reference whatever beyond the case to which it was immediately applied. The heretic, or fomenter of divisions, whom Titus was to reject, was evidently the Judaizing teacher, who, in opposition to the authority of the apostle, insisted on imposing the ritual law on the Gentile converts. Here was a case which, from its nature, admitted of no difficulty or dispute; but when, without being authorized to do so, we attempt to extend the precept into a general rule for the conduct of the church in all ages, we are immediately at a loss in the practical application of it. There is anonumbers [191] as were convenient for the purpose of public worship,—there seems no reason why they might not be left to settle their internal constitution in any way they pleased. But when a multitude of such churches are banded together into one great body or sect, either as established under the auspices of the state, invested by its authority with rich endowments, political privileges, and a power of interfering with the social rights of their fellow Christians, or as combined on some plan of association, more or less voluntary, into a regularly organized community, whose members seek to exercise lordship over each other, or to engage with other similar bodies in the struggles for sectarian preponderance, the case is wholly altered. The act of exclusion now assumes a new character, because it affects the political rights, the secular interests, or the social position of the excluded party. In such a case it is idle to talk of heresy as being determined by the act of a body so constituted, or of rendering the individual affected by it a heretic. The heresy is within them;—it forms an essential part of their own constitution;—it is they who are the true heretics, in exact proportion to the degree in which they suffer themselves to be influenced by that evil spirit of sectarianism, which is the bane of the present plan of religious association, and utterly adverse to Christian charity and brotherhood.

In 1744, on the death of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Hunt, Mr. Foster received an invitation to succeed him in the pastoral charge of the congregation at Pinners' Hall. His connexion with the Baptist society in Barbican, in conjunction with [192] Mr. Burroughs, had been, on the whole, an harmonious and comfortable one; and, in general liberality of views, they appear to have taken the lead, in some respects, of most of the London Presbyterian churches of that day. Thus we have already had occasion to remark, that this was the only dissenting congregation in London whose ministers thought proper to invite the services of the venerable Emlyn. But to this character there was one exception. They still adhered to the plan of what is called in that connexion close communion; restricting the admission to the Lord's table to such only as had received the ordinance of adult baptism, according to the mode of administration approved and practised by themselves. Mr. Foster took the present opportunity of endeavouring to prevail with them to revise this part of their constitution; but they chose to persevere in their exclusive system; a determination in which Mr. Burroughs, the other minister, appears to have concurred.7 On this [193] Mr. Foster withdrew, and removed to Pinners' Hall, where he continued till his increasing infirmities disabled him from preaching. His argument in favour of Catholic or open communion may be seen in a letter addressed to the Rev. W. Foot, of Bristol, some years after this time, a copy of which is inserted in the Christian Reformer for February, 1832. After arguing strongly in favour of the practice from the reason of the thing, and the propriety of allowing every man to act upon the conviction of his own mind, on a point in which so many wise and excellent men have differed, he adds, ‘With respect to the scripture rule, let us but follow the same method that we are always recommending to our Paedobaptist brethren, namely, not to frame duties by inferences, and to admit of nothing as such without the express command and institution of Christ himself, and this matter will be wholly decided. For then we shall not, I think, imagine we have a sufficient warrant for confining communion to baptized believers only, unless we can produce an express rule that none but they shall be admitted to communion in any age of the Christian church, however circumstanced; and that all Christians, however sincere, pious, and exemplary in their lives, for only mistaking the nature or subjects of baptism, shall be for ever kept at a distance, and excluded from it. Alas, indeed, if this be true Christianity!’

In the year 1746, Mr. Foster was called upon to perform a melancholy office, in attending on the Earl of Kilmarnock, who was then in the Tower under sentence of death for high-treason, to assist him in preparing for his last moment [194] He afterwards published a pamphlet, entitled ‘An Account of the Behaviour of the late Earl of Kilmarnock, after his Sentence, and on the Day of his Execution.’ This pamphlet, as might be expected, though abounding with such truly Christian and evangelical reflections as were most suitable to the occasion, was utterly devoid of the enthusiastic extravagances which too commonly deform the narratives given of the last moments of persons in these unhappy circumstances, by the believers in instantaneous conversions, irresistible grace, &c. Hence it exposed him to much ill-natured misrepresentation and abuse, which, however, only reflected discredit upon the authors, though it appears to have agitated and disturbed his tender spirit, rendered, perhaps, more than commonly susceptible by the lively sympathy excited in such a painful attendance. At all events, it was thought that a sensible abatement of his former vivacity was henceforward discernible during the short remainder of his active life.

In 1748 he received the degree of D. D, from the university of Aberdeen. The mode in which this well-merited honour was conferred appears to have been peculiarly complimentary and gratifying. In a letter written on the occasion by Professor David Fordyce, he says, ‘I am glad that, by our dispatch of what ought to have been dispatched long ago, we prevented Mr. Foster's declining what so well becomes him to receive, and us to confer. I assure you, sincerely, we rather seek to reflect honour on ourselves, than to do you honour, by rightly placing the academical dignity, the principal value of [195] which is the being at once highly merited and entirely unsolicited. Our society mean, by the just compliment inserted in the body of the diploma,8 rather to express their esteem of the modest preacher, than to do full justice to his character. For my part, Sir, it gives me a sincere pleasure to have contributed my small mite to do justice to the merit of one who has so often contributed to exalt my devotion, and confirm my attachment to virtue.’

In the following year was published the first volume, in 4to, of ‘Discourses on all the Principal Branches of Natural Religion and Social Virtue.’ The second volume appeared in 1752. This is a work of unequal merit, but, on the whole, of great interest and value. The parts which are, perhaps, most liable to exception, are those chapters of the first volume, in which he treats of what are commonly called, by way of distinction, the natural attributes of the Divine Nature. Abstract reasoning was, probably, not the writer's forte; and in this difficult and abstruse part of his subject, he has involved himself in various metaphysical difficulties, which have led him to adopt startling and untenable conclusions. Among these must be ranked his representation of the actions of rational and voluntary agents, as things absolutely contingent; whence he is led to deny the prescience, and, consequently, the omniscience of God in its application [196] to the most important objects of the Divine Government, for whose sake alone it is of any importance to us to acknowledge a Providence at all,—namely, the actions, and future condition as dependent upon them, of intelligent and moral creatures. The view of the moral attributes is much superior;—the chapter on the mercy or placability of God, in particular, contains as distinct and satisfactory a view of the argument on this most interesting question as is any where to be met with. The second volume is chiefly occupied with a view of the various departments of human duty, as arising out of the different relations of the social state, and, without containing much that is new or original, which, perhaps, was hardly to be expected from the nature of the subject, is most remarkable for sound good sense, plainly and perspicuously stated. The offices of devotion, at the end of the volume, afford an interesting and pleasing indication of the devotional character of the writer's mind, and of the extent to which he was accustomed to carry that most desirable habit of converting every train of thought or study in which he was engaged into a subject and occasion of devout meditation and communion with his Maker. Considered in the character for which they appear to have been intended, as forms for social worship, they are, perhaps, sometimes too long, and dwell with too great diffuseness and prolixity on particular topics; but as serious and solemn meditations on some of the most important subjects on which the human faculties can be engaged, thrown into the impressive form of a direct address to Him who gave us these faculties to be [197] so exercised on thoughts and inquiries most truly worthy of them, they well deserve to be not only read, but carefully studied.

One blot which deforms this part of the work we would gladly efface,—an invocation of the Divine displeasure against the Church of Rome, conceived in terms hardly consistent with the spirit of the Gospel of peace, especially against those whom he was bound, in conformity with his own most just and liberal principles, to receive as fellow-disciples and fellow-Christians. In passing judgment, however, on this, and some other passages of a like character which are found in his writings, we must remember that Foster lived a hundred years nearer than ourselves to the time when Popery was, not without reason, the grand object of alarm and dread to all lovers of civil and religious liberty, and make allowance for the prevailing spirit of the age, of which, though such spirits as his might be expected to take the lead, they could not always escape the influence.

This work was published by subscription, and the list of subscribers, extending to nearly two thousand names, comprises many of the most distinguished persons in the kingdom for rank, and every kind of eminence; a circumstance the more remarkable, because the author, in this as in most of his other writings, though he does not bring his religious peculiarities frequently or prominently forward, neglects no suitable opportunity of illustrating the intimate connexion of the duties and eternal interests of man with what he considers as just and scriptural views of revealed truth. [198]

In April 1750, Dr. Foster was attacked by a violent disorder, from the effects of which he never thoroughly recovered, though he continued to preach as often as he was able till January 1752. In that month he had a paralytic seizure, which completely disabled him; and he continued to decline, till he was at length released Nov. 5, 1753, in the fifty-fifth year of his age. During this period His faculties are said to have been considerably impaired; but he never, when he was able to converse, evinced the least disposition to doubt the religious principles he had embraced and steadfastly maintained as long as his mental vigour endured. His integrity was inflexible, and his attachment to civil and religious liberty ardent and sincere. The true principles of the latter, (with the slight exception to which we have already alluded,) he seems to have thoroughly understood, and consistently acted upon; and, while fearlessly pursuing his inquiries into religious truth to their legitimate conclusions, never to have forgotten that the main object and value of these conclusions consists in their application to the government of the heart and life, and to the due cultivation of the purest and best affections—of love to man, and love to God.

Dr. Foster was succeeded in his charge at Barbican by the Rev. Charles Bulkley, a gentleman of great learning, and known by several valuable works, few of which, however, have attracted as much notice from the public as their intrinsic merit deserves. He was a descendant of the celebrated Matthew Henry, and was educated by Doddridge; but shortly afterwards connected himself [199] with the General Baptists. When Foster retired from the evening lectureship at the Old Jewry, Mr. Bulkley conducted it for several years to a crowded audience; but circumstances did not favour his continuance of it for any length of time.

One of this writer's most remarkable productions is a vindication of Lord Shaftesbury on the subject of Ridicule considered as a Test of Truth; the design of which is to prove that the noble author meant nothing else than the test of free and cheerful inquiry, or an unrestrained, sociable, and pleasant manner of investigating truth and examining opinions which he had observed with such approbation in the writings of the ancients. In the course of this, and a subsequent tract entitled a Vindication of my Lord Shaftesbury on the subjects of Morality and Religion, he endeavours to shew that many of the sentiments which have been objected to, as opposed to revelation, are the true and genuine doctrines of Christianity; and that where he is supposed to sneer at the miracles of the New Testament, the real objects of his attack are the lying wonders and ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Church of Rome.

Soon afterwards he published an able Examination of Lord Bolingbroke's posthumous writings. This work shews great acuteness, perspicuity, and judgment, and is conceived throughout in a candid and liberal spirit. In 1764, Mr. B. published a 4to volume, entitled ‘The Economy of the Gospel,’ in which he takes a comprehensive view of the leading doctrines of revealed religion. This is a work of considerable merit; the production of a strong mind, under the influence of [200] the purest principles of benevolence and piety. In 1771 appeared Discourses on the Parables of our Blessed Saviour, and the Miracles of the Holy Gospel, in four volumes 8vo.

Besides these larger works, Mr. Bulkley published several smaller treatises and single discourses. In 1780, his church, in conjunction with three others, removed to a new chapel in Worship Street, where he continued during the remainder of his long and active life. He died April 15, 1797, in the 78th year of his age. In 1802 appeared a posthumous work, entitled ‘Notes on the Bible,’ in three volumes, with a Memoir by Dr. Toulmin, from which the preceding particulars have been derived.

1 Funeral Sermon, by Dr. Fleming, p. 8.

2 Murch's History of the Presbyterian and General Baptist Churches in the West of England, p. 159.

3 Fleming, p. 9.

4 Funeral Sermon, by C. Bulkeley, p. 10.

5 I am indebted to my friend, the Rev. B. Mardon, for a reference to the following passage, in a letter of Lord Bolingbroke to Mr. Pope, in which he refers to this aphorism, and comments on it with high approbation. The extract itself is remarkable, as exemplifying the vacillating, inconsistent state of mind which many unbelievers betray,—often from the influence of early habits of thought and feeling, the results of a religious education, but sometimes, perhaps, from a lingering regard to, and value for, the discoveries and benefits of the Gospel, of which, at times, they cannot divest themselves. Lord Boligbroke here writes like one who was almost a Christian; or, at least, like one who wished that he could be so.

‘I can not conclude my discourse on this occasion better than by putting you in mind of a passage you quoted to me once with great applause, from a sermon of Foster, to this effect, “where mystery begins religion ends.” The aphorism pleased me much; and I was glad to hear such a truth from any pulpit, since it shews an inclination at least to purify Christianity from the leaves of artificial theology, which consists principally in making things that are plain mysterious, and in pretending to make things that are impenetrably mysterious very plain. If you still continue of the same mind, I shall have no excuse to make to you for what I have written and shall write. Our opinion coincide. If you have changed your mind, think again and examine further. You will find that it is the modest and not the presumptuous inquirer who makes a real and safe progress in the discovery of divine truth. One follows nature, and nature's God,—that is, he follows God in his works and in his word, nor presumes to go further, by metaphysical and theological commentaries of his own invention, than the two texts, if I may the expression, carry him very-evidently. They who have done otherwise, and have affected to discover, by a supposed science derived from tradition or taught in the schools, more than they who have not such science can discover, concerning the nature, physical and moral, of the Supreme Being, and concerning the secrets of his providence, have been either enthusiasts or knaves, or else of the numerous tribe who reason well very often, but reason always upon some arbitrary supposition.’

6 See Richardsoniana, pp. 333-335, as quoted in Aikin's General Biography, art. Fleetwood.

7 Mr. Burroughs's view of this subject seems, however, if we may be allowed to say so, to have been in some respects more liberal than consistent. ‘As no particular terms of church communion are prescribed in the New Testament, he concluded that every church must be at liberty to fix those terms which it may judge to be most conducive to the main end and design of the Gospel, provided it does not attempt to impose them upon others. He apprehended it expedient that the churches of baptized believers should not admit to their communion any but those who have regularly devoted themselves to Christ in holy baptism at years of maturity. But it was apparent, from his whole conduct, that this did not arise from any narrow or contracted notions, or party-attachments; for he always shewed an equal regard for all sincere Christians, of whatever denomination or sect. And though they could not all communicate at one table, yet he considered them all as being equally members of one and the same body, of which Jesus Christ is the great head.’—Noble's Funeral Sermon for Burroughs, p. 33.

8 Eaque mente Virum vere egregium Jacobum Foster, dignum Evangelio Ministrum Ingenio, Doctrina, Eloquentia insignem, Virtutis ac Veritatis Amicum, Libertatis, tam Civilis quam Christianae Vindicem, Vitaque quam Scriptis, probatissimis licet, clariorem, insigni honoris titulo promeritis decotre volentes, S. S. Theologiae Doctorem creavimus, &c.

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