This similarity of feelings in the experience of the pious has often been observed, and has been justly considered a strong evidence of the divine origin of experimental religion; for how otherwise can this uniformity of the views and feelings of the pious, in all ages and countries, be accounted for? Excitement assumes a thousand different shapes and is marked by no uniform characteristics; but scriptural piety is the same now as in the days of David and Asaph, the same as when Paul lived, the same as experienced by the pious fathers of the Christian Church, the same as described by the Reformers, by the Puritans and by the evangelical preachers and writers of the present day.
When the gospel takes effect on any of the heathen, although it is certain that they never had the opportunity of learning anything of this kind from others, yet we find them expressing the same feelings which are common to other Christians. Persons from different quarters of the globe, whose native tongue is entirely different, yet speak the same language in religion.
The late eminently pious and learned theologian, the Rev Dr Livingston, related to me, not many years before his decease, a pleasant story which will serve to illustrate the point under consideration, and which I communicate to the public the more willingly because I do not know that he has left any record of it behind him. While a student at the University of Utrecht, a number of pious persons, from the town and from among the students, were accustomed to meet for free conversation on experimental religion and for prayer and praise in a social capacity. On one of these occasions, when the similarity of the exercises of the pious, in all countries and ages, was the subject of conversation, it was remarked by one of the company that there was then present a representative from each of the four quarters of the world. These were Dr Livingston from America, a young man from the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, another student from one of the Dutch possessions in the East Indies, and many natives of Europe of course. It was therefore proposed that, at the next meeting, the three young gentlemen first referred to, together with an eminently pious young nobleman of Holland, should each give a particular narrative of the rise and progress of the work of grace in his own soul.
The proposal was universally acceptable, and accordingly a narrative was heard from a native of each of the four quarters of the globe of their views and feelings, of their trials and temptations etc. The result was highly gratifying to all present, and I think Dr Livingston said that it was generally admitted by those present that they had never before witnessed so interesting a scene. And, since I have taken the liberty of mentioning the name of that distinguished theologian, I beg leave to add that I have never seen a man who appeared to love vital piety more, or to understand its nature better.
But the identity of religious feeling which has been described above is consistent with a great variety in many of the accompanying circumstances. Indeed, it seems probable that each individual Christian has something distinctly characteristic in his own case, so that there exists at least as much difference in the peculiar features of the inner as of the outward man. The causes of these differences are manifold. As first, the different degrees of grace received in the commencement of the divine life; secondly, the extent to which they have respectively run in sin, and the suddenness, or gradual nature, of their change; thirdly, the degree of religious knowledge which is possessed; and finally, no small diversity arises from the various constitutional temperaments of different persons, which must have a powerful effect in giving complexion to the exercises of religion. To all which may be added the manner in which persons under religious impressions are treated by their spiritual guides, and especially the manner in which the gospel is preached to them.
It has been remarked by men of exact observation that particular revivals of religion are often marked by something peculiar in the exercises and in the spirit of those who are the subjects of them. In some revivals, convictions are more sharp and awful, or continued for a longer time, than in others; and the converts, in some revivals, appear to acquire a much deeper and more abiding impression of the reality and glory of divine things, and are evidently more under the constraining influence of the love of Christ, than is observable in other cases. These are subjects which deserve a careful investigation, and as revivals are increasing in frequency and extent in our churches, and as different modes of conducting them are in use, it is highly important that some man of deep experience and sober, impartial judgement should make observations extensively, and communicate them to the religious public, which is, in many places, perplexed and distracted with the different methods of treatment recommended by different persons and different parties.
It may, however, be laid down as a sound rule that, in proportion as the truth of God is clearly brought to view and faithfully applied to the heart and conscience, the good effects will be manifest. Erroneous opinions, although mingled with the essential truths of the gospel, will ever tend to mar the work of God. The good produced on any individual, or on a society, must not be judged of by the violence of the feelings excited, but by their character. Men may be consumed by a fiery zeal, and yet exhibit little of the meekness, humility, and sweet benevolence of Jesus. Great pretenders and high professors may be proud, arrogant, and critical. When these are the effects, we may, without fear, declare, that they “know not what manner of spirit [they] are of”. Any religion, however corrupt, may have its zealots; but true Christianity consists in the fruits of the Spirit, which are “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance”.
Piety seems also to assume an aspect somewhat different in different ages and periods of the church. There is in human nature a strong tendency to run to extremes, and from one extreme immediately to the opposite. And as the imperfections of our nature mingle with everything which we touch, so piety itself is not exempt from the influence of the tendency above mentioned. In one age, or in one religious community, the leaning is to enthusiasm; in another, to superstition. At one time, religion is made to assume a severe and gloomy aspect; the conscience is gloomy and things indifferent are viewed as sins; and human infirmities are magnified into crimes. At such times, all cheerfulness is proscribed; and the Christian whom nature prompts to smile, feels a check from the conscience within. This value of genuine piety is also often connected with an unreasonable attitude. Now, when true religion is disfigured by such defects, it appears before the world to great disadvantage. Men of the world form their opinions of the nature of piety from what they observe in its professors, and from such an exhibition of it as we have described they often take up prejudices which are never removed.
There is, however, an opposite extreme, not less dangerous and injurious than this, when professors of religion conform to the world so far that no clear distinction can be observed between the Christian and the worldling. If the former error drives men away from religion as a sour and miserable thing, this leads them to the opinion that Christians are activated by the same principles as they are, and therefore they conclude that no great change of their character is necessary. It is sometimes alleged, by professors of religion, who thus accommodate themselves to the fashions and amusements of the world, that they hope by this means to render religion attractive and thus gain over to piety those who neglect it; but this is a weak pretext, for such conformity always tends to confirm people in their carelessness. When they see such professors at the theatre, or figuring in the ball-room, their conclusion either is, that there is no reality in vital piety, or that these professors act inconsistently.
The religious habits of some serious professors of religion are apt to make a very unfavourable impression on the minds of sensible men. They assume a false piety and speak in an affected and drawling tone, often sighing and giving audible utterance to their own emotions. Now these persons may be and, I doubt not, often are, truly pious; but the impression made on most minds, by this affectation of religious solemnity, is that they are hypocrites who aim at being thought uncommonly devout. It appears to me that religion never appears so lovely as when she wears the dress of perfect simplicity. We ought not, indeed, to be ashamed of our religion before the world, but it obliges us to be very careful not to give to others an unfavourable opinion of serious piety. The rule is, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven”. “Let not your good be evil spoken of.”