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Circular Letter of the
Shaftsbury Association, VT

By Elder John Leland, 1793

BELOVED BRETHREN: It is a leading characteristic of the Baptists, that without pope or king for head -- without spiritual or civil courts established by law -- without a conclave of bishops, or convocation of clergy -- without legalized creeds or formularies of worship -- without a ministry supported by law, or any human coercion in discipline, they are so far united in sentiment, respecting the New Testament, that a free correspondence and communion circulate among them. "They have no king, (on earth,) yet go they forth all of them by bands." The Bible is the only confession of faith they dare adopt -- the final umpire they appeal unto for a decision of controversies.

But while we would felicitate ourselves with this infallible guide, we find ourselves boldly attacked by deists and infidels, who seek to sap the foundation or our religion, by asserting that Moses and the prophets were enthusiastical cheats, and that Jesus and his apostles were but pitiful impostors; that all their writings are like modern priestcraft -- like the sublime nonsense of Jesuits.

Notwithstanding the variety of opinions, and discordance of sounds among those infidels, yet they are alike confident, and equally-assiduous in declaring what is not true, and never tell us what truth is. With all their boasted illumination in the ground and laws of nature, they never tell us what natural religion is, nor how the God of nature is to be worshiped.

It can hardly be credited, that the Parent of the universe should leave his offspring in this dreary world to make their way to eternity without some guide -- some sure word of prophecy, to direct their course. That the Bible is such a guide -- a revelation of God's will, written by men divinely inspired -- is attempted to be supported by the following remarks:

First. The antiquity of some of the sacred writings, is an argument in favor of the divine authority. The writings of Moses are several hundred years earlier than any profane writings now extant, which proves that he did not collect them from any records, but wrote by Divine impulse; nor could he, or any other man, have told how the worlds were made and peopled, (prior to the formation of Adam,) but by a revelation from God.

Second. The honesty of the penman has some weight in the argument. Moses, for instance, gives an account of his own sin, as well as the sins of his brother and sister, and is very full in pointing out the faults of his nation, and reproving them therefor, which things are not to be found in profane authors: and when he had the offer of being made great, and his family important, he declined the offer, and prayed for the pardon and preservation of that people that he had so plainly reproved for their sins. To these things we may add, that he says not a word about his learning, wisdom and honor in Egypt; all of which look as if he did not write to honor himself, but to reveal the will of God, and to do good to mankind. The same may be said of other sacred writers; they not only made verbal confessions of their sins, but left the same on record that others might fear.

Third. Notwithstanding the Bible was about sixteen hundred years in writing, by men in different ages and in very different circumstances, yet they all speak the same things. Some allowance must be made for the different dialects and customs of the people among whom the writers lived, and also for their own peculiar way of expressing themselves; but in substance they are uniform, infinitely more so than the human accounts or great events by many authors. Many of the apparent mistakes that are in the sacred volume, no doubt, are made by our own ignorance, but if there are a few of them that have been occasioned by a multitude of transcriptions, and other causes, yet they only respect numbers and places, and in no wise affect our faith and practice.

Fourth. The prophetic essays in the Scripture, together with their exact accomplishment, are wonderful. Josiah and Cyrus were prophesied of by name a long time before they were born, and the deeds they should perform, which exactly came to pass. The destruction of various kingdoms, and by whom, was foretold, and afterwards effected. The coming of John the Baptist -- the conception of Jesus Christ -- the place of his birth -- the work of his ministry -- the manner of his death -- the effusion of the Holy Ghost -- the gathering of the Gentiles -- the destruction of Jerusalem, and a number of things besides, were not more expressly predicted, than fully accomplished. This leads us to believe that all prophecies that are behind the screen, will, in their times, be completely fulfilled.

Fifth. The sublimity of style in which the Scripture is written, bespeaks its author to be God. Some of the most lofty strokes were delivered by rustic men. Amos, for example, was not a prophet by birth, nor trained in the schools of the prophets, but was an herdman and n gatherer of sycamore fruit, yet some of his tropes are as lofty as the heavens; and the same is true of some others who wrote. How flat and insipid are the writings of Homer, Virgil, Xenophon, Cicero, and other Pagans, when once compared with the Bible. It is not a blind devotion that Jews have paid to the Old Testament, and Christians to both old and new, but a consciousness of their supreme merit. Longinus and Cyrus both acknowledged the sublimity of the style. To this may be added the chastity of diction through the sacred volume. When it was necessary to treat of things rather indecent, it is wonderful to see what euphonisms are used by the sacred writers, and throughout the volume gravity and chastity of dialect is found, and nothing to provoke obscenity, levity, or confusion.

Sixth. The wonderful effects that the reading and explaining of the Scriptures have had on the hearts and consciences of men, form an incontestable proof of the authenticity of the Bible. The Sybils, by the Romans, and the Koran, by the Turks, have been considered as coming from God: but their admirers have only received them as directions of life, (as we do codes of laws,) and have never pretended that those books affect the heart. Here, then, appears the pre-eminence of the Bible above all other books, for thousands of thousands can witness that the truth of the Bible has so affected their hearts as to make them love the divine character, and cordially submit to the government of heaven. And this same word of truth has borne up the minds of those who believed it under all their misfortunes, and made them triumph in the hour of death, so that if the faith of the gospel were a delusion, it would be the best delusion in the world.

Seventh. The patient sufferings of those who have received the Scripture as a revelation from God, is another argument in its favor. These sufferings they have endured, not with the sullen air of a disappointed usurper, or the obstinate spirit of a conquered hero, but with the meekness of a Christian, prizing life, if they could enjoy it innocently, but choosing suffering and death rather than sin. It. is true that men will suffer much for their own wills, but such sufferers will recriminate when it is in their power; a quite different spirit has been seen among those who have suffered for the truth's sake, and it is not rational to suppose that they would have suffered so much for the defence of imposture.

Eighth. The great care that God has manifested in keeping these writings in existence amidst so many attempts to destroy them, is remarkable, and through the various translations that they have passed, to keep the sense so pure, still confirms the idea that God will preserve his own. And if we add to this, the rage that devils and wicked men have ever had to the Bible, the presumption is very strong that it is the Book of God.

Ninth. It cannot be that the Bible was written by bad men, for it condemns every branch of vice, and it cannot be supposed that designing men would form a system to condemn themselves in every respect. If it was written by good men, it is true, for liars are not good men; and if they spake the truth, then the Bible is of God, for the writers thereof declare that they wrote by the spirit of God.

Tenth. In addition to the grandeur and uniformity of that plan of truth which the Bible contains, we may further allege in support of its divinity, that in all parts it reflects the most transcendent honor on the character of God -- it contains a perfect system of morality, answerable in all respects ,to the purity of God, and of course tends to the highest happiness of men.

Eleventh. The judgments that have been inflicted on those who have destroyed these writings are not to be forgotten, especially on Antiochus and Dioclesian, the first of whom vented his rage against the old Testament, and the last against the new. Both seemed to share nearly one fate, and the first owned it was for destroying the writings of the Jews. Because they took away from God's book, God took away their parts from the book of life, and from the holy city; that is, he did not suffer them to live to enjoy the blessings described in his book, and when they died, he did not admit them into .heaven without a change of character.

Twelfth. If the miracles recorded in the Bible are not original arguments to prove the divinity of it, yet they must raise the wonder and confidence of all those, who, for other reasons, are persuaded of its veracity, to see what wonders God has wrought to preserve his people, establish his word, and furnish his ambassadors with bright credentials that they came and wrought in his name.

These are some of the reasons we assign, wherefore we receive the Scripture as the word of God.

Our faith is firm in the divinity of the Old Testament, as it is in the New, but as many things in the Old Testament are only historical, others form a code of political laws and moral precepts, while many things therein were typical and temporary, suited to the condition of a national church, we believe that Christians should have recourse to the New Testament for precepts and precedents to direct them in social worship.

By what we have written, our desire is, dear brethren, that your faith may be confirmed in the holy Scripture, in this day of infidelity, and that in all your conduct you may give heed thereto as unto a light shining in a dark place, and thereby prove to ail that behold you, that you are Bible Christians.

[From The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, Miss L. F. Greene, editor, 1845; rept. 1986, pp. 196-199. - jrd]

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