Free Religion Run Mad

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Providence, Dec. 20,1878.

To the Editor of The Index:—

I beg your generosity for a few heart-felt reflections on the spirit and "true inwardness" of the Free Religious Convention which has just been holden here. Perhaps I deserve it in part, since I have been one of the most active workers in the up-building of the new religion, and have suffered ostracism and professional neglect in an unequal fight for various liberal reforms in these benighted plantations.

I listened with profound attention and respect to the address of Prof. Felix Adler, the President of the Association. His analysis of religious beliefs was intelligent and scholarly. His classification of the prominent schools of philosophy was logical and comprehensive. The mission of free religion in the present stage of theological development was beneficent and necessary.

Finally, Prof. Adler summed up, in substantially these words: "Free religion says to a man, No matter what your belief, come and join us, and we will not quarrel over creeds and externals. If you are a Buddhist, come and join us in good works; if you are a Jew, come and emulate us in the religion of deeds. It says to all: Believe or disbelieve what you choose, but join with us in that religion which has no choice,—a good, nay, a better life."

But at this juncture of the discourse, there gathers a dark, dreadful cloud over the spirit of the free religious dream. Alas! Prof. Adler, for your liberalism, as you continue: "But there is a religion which admits of no choice, where we will be dogmatic as you will, severe as you will, yea, intolerant as you will: it is the religion of morality. Liberalism must stand for virtue. Radicalism has one plank where it tolerates no difference of belief: that plank is purity."

As I wended my way from the hall, I was indeed pained and utterly astonished that a man of the assumed culture of Prof. Felix Adler should be so fatally blind to the tendencies of history. Is that all, then, that free religion has to offer, in this age of progress? Freedom of theological belief? Why, within a stone's throw of that platform is Grace Church. The Episcopal bishop told a gentleman who inquired as to the binding force of creeds, as a condition of membership, that the Church ranged all the way from Atheism to Orthodoxy. The bishop himself is a firm believer in modern Spiritualism. And this is the most fashionable church In Providence. Mrs. Anna Garlin Spencer, who sat upon the platform, once told me that, having outgrown the creed of her Congregational church, she went to the clergyman and told him that she could not conscientiously keep her name on the books, since she did not subscribe to the dogmas. "Why!" said the reverend gentleman, "that is of no consequence,—stay and work with us in good deeds." And is this the one great especial virtue of free religion?

The average student of history understands the great point that was achieved in the mighty struggle of the Reformation. Two centuries of blood and savage strife finally wrung an assent to liberty of conscience from theological despotism. Luther stands out in history as the herald of the right of private judgment in matters of religious belief. That matter was settled, and went upon the records, stamped with the seal of blood, three centuries ago. Now does Prof. Adler not see that the next step in order is to push the right of private judgment still further, into the domain of conduct and morals? and has that not been the order ever since the Reformation? The whole civil and social history of Europe and America bears witness to it. What are the chief questions to-day which have interested the intelligent pulpits and parlors? The moral propriety of woman's taking part in politics, the morality of opening the libraries on Sundays, and the morality of scores of demands on the part of woman. The case of E. H. Heywood, just released from Dedham jail, is one exactly to the point. The editor of The Index admits that the private life of this gentleman is as clean as any man's in Massachusetts. It finally amounts to this, then, that Mr. Heywood believes a certain social order to be most conducive to purity and virtue, while Mr. Abbot believes that such social order would be most conducive to impurity and demoralization. One is just as sincere in his belief as the other. They appeal to the "new religion," and what does its head and President say? "Radicalism has one plank where it tolerates no difference of belief: that plank is purity." But whose purity? Has not Mr. Heywood as good a right to his purity as Mr. Abbot has to his t Do you mean to set yourself up as an Infallible judge as to what is purity, and then call the system which tolerates no choice on Mr. Heywood's part free religion?

In all sincerity, I confess that I have seldom seen a man stand in so humiliating a position as did Prof. Felix Adler when he uttered those unfortunate free religious bulls. If his following endorse such moral intolerance, then I for one declare free religion to be the most dangerous sect in the community; for we look to professed liberals for better things. But without trespassing further, Mr. Editor, I beg you to be tolerant towards these candid utterances. I have set my heart upon seeing a thoroughly liberal movement inaugurated in this great land of promise. It is in a spirit more of grief than anger that I have permitted myself to presume so far upon your temper and toleration.

Henry Appleton.