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 Miracles as an Evidence of Christianity

David Damon

an address delivered before the ministerial conference, in berry street, boston, may 27, 1840. Published in The Christian Examiner (vol. 29: 3rd series, vol. 11, no. 1, September 1840).

Damon enters the debate over miracles that came in the wake of Andrews Norton's discourse, "The Latest Form of Infidelity" (July 1839). Damon puts himself firmly on the side of the conservatives in what is arguably the best case yet for their position.  

I propose to address you, at this time, Fathers and Brethren in the Christian Ministry, upon the subject of the Christian Miracles—particularly in their character of an evidence of Christianity as a revelation from God. "The present aspect of Theology amongst us"[1] must be my apology for the adoption of a subject which might otherwise be deemed but ill-suited to the occasion of a Pastoral Conference.


By miracles, I understand something more than the derivation of the term implies, that is, more than simply wonderful works, namely, such wonderful works as have been commonly supposed, by believers in Christianity, to be wrought by the special aid and interposition of God. It is to this class of wonderful works, if I mistake not, that the application of the term miracles is generally restricted. By the Christian miracles, I understand those, and only those, of which we find the record in the New Testament.


How do men know that, among all the wonderful works which have been wrought in men's view, there are some which were wrought by the particular aid and interposition of God? This is the first question which presents itself to us in entering upon this subject.


Men do not know this as certainly as they do that they themselves exist—that two added to two are equal to four—that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles—that of two fruit trees, which are in view at a few paces before them, one is taller than the other—that is, strictly speaking, they do not know this at all. But men so judge and believe of certain wonderful works, presenting certain characteristics, and not of other works, though truly wonderful, which are wanting in some or all of the same certain characteristics.


Men judge and believe certain wonderful works to be wrought by the particular aid and interposition of God, because the works seem manifestly to transcend human power, and the power of all beings of whom they have any knowledge or distinct apprehension, save God alone. The works differ also from all the usual and known results of the operations of the laws of nature, so called. They stand out by themselves, as the wide and fair creation did at the blest primeval hour, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy. They are also, for the most part certainly, beneficent in their nature and consequences. They are not trivial, intricate puzzles of hard solution, and without a grand, useful, or permanent result, when exhibited and solved; but they are morally sublime, commonly in the proceeding, always in the result. The declared purpose for which they are wrought, when declaration is made of it, is worthy of the works themselves. Declaration is also often made by the doer of these works that they are wrought by the power of God; and the doer should be supposed to know more concerning this point than the mere witness not to insist that his general character and other words and deeds may go to confirm his credibility.


For these and other like reasons, men, that is, some men, many men, in the exercise of their common sense and sober judgment, after careful and scrutinizing observation, believe the works to be done by the almighty power and special interposition of God, while of other works, wanting some or many of these characteristics, they have not the same belief. The common mind is so constituted as to believe in view of the supposed phenomena; and therefore so it does believe in fact. Unbelief is the exception, belief the general rule or result, in the instances given.


The question concerning the agency and power by which miracles are wrought is a question concerning beliefs and the grounds for them, not concerning knowledge, demonstration, or intuition. The moment absolute knowledge begins, there is an end of belief properly so called. Something different—not perhaps stronger, or better, or more efficacious practically—but something different has come instead of belief. You may persuade a man out of his belief into another belief, by strong reasons, but you cannot persuade him out of his knowledge into another knowledge. If he knows, there is an end of reasoning and faith. Hence an atheist, while he remains an atheist, cannot believe in miracles, in the sense in which I use the term, though he may believe in wonderful works as matters of fact, and may even profess to believe that, in reality, there is no wonder in wonderful works. Hence also an ignorant believer in the semi-almighty power of Beelzebub may possibly believe that Beelzebub did the works, which, if there be any Beelzebub, Beelzebub cannot do. But it does not hence follow that men of good common sense, capable of just observation and comparison, and believers in one God, should not believe, and have not sufficient grounds for believing, just what they do believe—that the works, which they consider as specially God's works, were wrought by his power, and wrought for the ends specified and declared by the subordinate agents and doers.


But it is objected—"All we actually see is the work alone." Well, are we to draw no inference from what we see? Can reason and faith extend no further than actual vision? So thought not a certain one of the New Testament writers. He says, "Faith is the evidence of things not seen" [Heb. 11:1]. For myself, when I see a man violently beating a horse, I see that the horse is beaten, but I infer something more, namely, that the man beating is violently, and probably is unreasonably, angry. The old homely proverb, "seeing is believing," if taken literally, is essentially an untruth. The operations of seeing and believing are not identical, but distinct and different. I not only may, but I must, draw inferences from what I see; and I am yet to learn that I, and many of those who differ from me in present opinion concerning miracles, should not draw the same inferences, especially as it respects the power by which they are wrought, if we could be made eye witnesses of their actual performance.


There are other objections made to ascribing any wonderful work to the divine power, agency, interposition, or aid; but as they are likewise objections to ascribing any weight to miracles as evidence, they may as well be considered after answering the inquiry which is presented next in order. Those who have gone with me thus far will probably be willing to proceed with me to this next inquiry.


This inquiry is—how and in what way the Christian miracles were and still are an evidence of Christianity as a divine revelation, it being considered as already ascertained that the miracles were wrought by the interposition and power of God?


At this stage in the discussion, the miracles present themselves to us in two aspects; and we may view them, and ought to view them, from two different positions. First, we will place ourselves in the position of those who were original eyewitnesses of the miracles, to whom also the person who wrought or exhibited the miracles came teaching, as a divine revelation, those truths, which taken collectively, we now denominate Christianity.


The teacher comes, and I hear him say weighty and excellent things. They approve themselves to my understanding and conscience. I believe some of them to be truths, and I think it probable the rest are also true. I begin to be disposed to become his follower. But the teacher puts forth most extraordinary claims. He declares that he is commanded and commissioned by the God and Father of all to inculcate these truths, that I must receive them as a revelation from God to men, that they have a divine authority and sanction, such as the truths taught by the wise men of the world have not, nay, such as the very truths themselves, without the sanction, would not have had, that is, if none but the wise men of the world, the scribes, Pharisees, and philosophers, had taught them—and that by disregarding them now, I shall commit a greater sin against truth and the God of truth than I could have done if he had not come and taught me as he has done. Doubt and hesitation arise in my breast. I perceive a claim to a higher inspiration than other teachers have asserted for themselves. I perceive a claim of having first been taught as well as a claim of teaching by higher authority than that to which I have been accustomed to defer. I perceive that if I admit this claim, I admit likewise motives to obedience of the truths inculcated, and dissuasives from disobedience of a higher order than have before reached and influenced my soul. I ask for the teacher's credentials. I would see a sign of the mighty authority to which the teaching which I have heard asserts such positive claim. The teacher performs a series of miracles in my presence, and I am satisfied. The blind receive sight, the deaf hear, the dead live and speak. Here is more than wisdom. Here is astonishing power. I can doubt no longer. I now feel what Nicodemus felt and expressed: "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God, for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him." I now believe the teacher came from God, and that he who came from God, thus commissioned and endowed, will speak truth in God's name, and that it is all important I should regard the truth thus spoken. Other truth, which others speak, I may or may not practically regard; and the consequences in either case shall be, at least may be, comparatively small and temporary. But this truth, so manifestly divine, I may by no means slight or disregard. It has the stamp of God's authority and power upon it; and as it is celestial in its origin, so it must be spiritual, paramount, uncompromising, and everlasting in its claims. I believe reverently, and I feel that I must obey heartily.


Perhaps the order of the process of believing in the communications of the teacher, as a revelation from God, may be the reverse of the preceding, as follows:  I am first attracted by the miracles which are exhibited. I pause for a short time in vague and speechless wonder. But soon I conclude that the man who can do these miracles must come from God. I am therefore prepared to receive what he says as a message from God; and afterwards I am confirmed in my belief of the source whence it came, by the character and adaptations of the message itself. In each order of process, the miracles are evidence—evidence, the first to be coveted, the mightiest to evince, the last to be abandoned.


"So then," says the objector, "the logic of the argument is this: Jesus fed five thousand persons with five loaves and two fishes; therefore he spake truth when he said, 'Verily, verily, I say unto you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the son of God, and they that hear shall live,' and therefore also, this truth is to be received as part and portion of a special revelation from God to men?" Certainly, I readily admit, the conclusion does not follow from the position assumed in the objection, in the same way in which a logical inference or conclusion follows from an antecedent verbal proposition or premise in a syllogism. The reasoning is capable, however, of being reduced to the syllogistic form. But without insisting upon this, it is sufficient to maintain, as I have done, that it is a just and natural exercise of the understanding or reason which God has given me that I should believe and confide in the authority and truthfulness of the teacher on account of the works which he performs, when they are such works as those which are held in view. It must at once be admitted to be possible for some to reason and conclude otherwise; but it is certain to my mind that it will generally be held unnatural, unreasonable, and unphilosophical for them to do so.


It follows, from the preceding discussion that, although there are other evidences of the truth, the importance, and the divine origin of what Jesus has spoken, miracles are essential to the fullness and perfection of a body of evidence. They are the keystone in the structure of evidences. Without them most believers in Christianity as a revelation from God would feel that an evidence was wanting, which it is extremely desirable to have, if not essential to the integrity of their faith in divine revelation as such. It is readily admitted as indisputable that God can make a revelation to my mind and soul if he pleases, and assure me that it is a revelation from him, without a visible or tangible miracle, or to any other individual mind with like assurance. But if I am to communicate this revelation to others as a matter which concerns them equally with myself, the question arises, how am I to afford them reasonable proof that what I inculcate as a revelation from God is such in reality? Here it is that miracles find their place and value as evidences of a divine communication, as pertinently as the man who informs me that he raised from the ground yesterday, by his unaided strength, five hundred pounds weight, labors to convince me that he speaks truth, by raising seven hundred pounds, in the same manner, in my presence, today.


"But," it may be asked, "how are we to distinguish the real miracle from other wonders, from the exploits of the man privileged and skilled in nature's secrets—the juggler's feats—divers marvelous things?" I cannot but consider this difficulty as far more theoretical than practical. I think it fair to presume that, if God would reveal his will to his rational creatures and assure them of the reality of the revelation by wonderful works and signs, these would be such in number, variety, and character as to leave little or no room for the intrusion of this difficulty upon the minds of competent and candid witnesses of the works. At any rate, such are the Christian miracles as to character, variety, number. The enlightened and sincere inquirer after truth will always bear in mind that the question is not whether marvelous works in general are evidences of God's special interposition to authenticate a revelation, or to effect any other object, but whether the Christian miracles in particular, and collectively taken, are to be received as a decisive evidence that Christianity is a divine revelation. I do not contend that any and every wonderful work is sufficient, singly, to establish the performer's claim to teach by divine authority. Nor is it the question how confidently I ought to believe, or how much I should actually doubt, if the miracles of changing water into wine, the blasting of the barren fig tree, the transfer of mania from a man to a herd of swine, and the finding of money in a fish's mouth were all which were exhibited. I might wish, in my presumption that, if those were all which were wrought, there had been a record of none. But in view of the whole done, recorded, and referred to, I find it easy to believe that, if every particular relating to the occasion, the action and the result were preserved and placed before me, I should find no great difficulties attached to these few, which constitute so small a portion of the whole. The rest stand out heavenwide from the juggler's feats, the alchemist's transmutations, the fanatic's trances, and everything else with which they have been sometimes, but very improperly, classed.


The grandeur of the acts, and the beneficence and permanence of the results, in the Christian miracles generally are conceded; still it is urged that "to give any weight of evidence to the mere wonderful work itself, either independently of or combined with, the testimony of the performer is to assume that every wonderful work, which we cannot otherwise account for, must of necessity be explained by supposing a special divine interference." How much am I to understand by the phrase "cannot otherwise account for?" If this phrase means cannot show how and by what agency the work was actually performed, I wholly deny the allegation. I make no sort of attempt to account for half the marvels I see and hear. If the phrase means—cannot give any plausible account how the work might possibly have been done—the allegation comes some nearer to the truth; for in an example of the kind last supposed, there would arise some presumption that the work must be wrought by divine wisdom and power. But I deny that there is any assumption whatever of the kind alleged. The reasons for which certain wonderful works are believed to be performed by special divine interposition have already been referred to, and in part expressly stated. They may be insufficient to satisfy some minds that the works are God's works, in the sense contended for, but they are sufficient to show that in giving weight of evidence to miracles there is no assumption whatever, but reasoning from an opinion or belief which rests upon its own grounds, be these grounds sufficient or insufficient to sustain the opinion.


"But suppose," the objector still urges, "the man who brings to you an alleged divine revelation, and works miracles to authenticate his divine commission to teach, commands you to break God's law written in your heart by slaying your brother, or to do some other known evil that good may come of it, and is himself guilty of absolute falsehood. What will you say then?" I wait, and I expect to wait, for the presentation of this difficulty in the shape of facts. Then I will reply to the hypothesis. I am not bound to reply to an hypothesis which, to my mind, involves an absurdity, at least a contradiction, and which seems to me to border upon impiety. It is sufficient to say now, no such instance has occurred, will occur, or can occur. God does not act in contravention to his own attributes and purposes. It is the association of the Christian Miracles, luminous gems in themselves, with God's manifest purposes of love, which gives them additional lustre; and they again reflect back, with increased brilliancy and effect, the light and beauty and glory, in the midst of which they stand.


It is now time to ask: if the Christian miracles furnish no evidence of Christianity as a divine revelation, why were they wrought?—what was their design? No satisfactory account is given of this matter by those who think lightly of the miracles as evidence, or altogether deny to them this office. One able writer says, "I know not what was the actual purpose for which they were wrought; nor do I know what purpose they actually served."[2] Another able writer says, "We may perceive many purposes answered by them, but what was their special purpose, I venture not to state. I cannot sympathize with the confidence with which many undertake to tell what is the intended end of any event, even the humblest."[3] "It would rather seem," he adds afterwards, "that every particle of the great whole exists for an end, indefinable, inconceivable." It would be natural to some persons to inquire here why we should believe that the great whole, or any part of it, exists for any end, if none can be descried, which is either definable or conceivable. But this is aside from the purpose in hand.


Other writers admit equal ignorance of the design of the Christian miracles. Well they may, after denying to them all value as evidence. And most certainly there was no need of them as evidence, if men generally, in the beginning of the Gospel dispensation, could see intuitively, and so "take up into their own consciousness," according to the new phraseology of the day, whatever of truth God was pleased to announce to them by his messenger. But that might not have been a time of such enlarged consciousness and intuition as the present. Why then, I reiterate the inquiry, such prodigal superfluity of marvelous and beneficent power?


But, notwithstanding all the professed ignorance of the design of the Christian miracles, one of the writers referred to says, "Mankind, especially when but partially enlightened, are much more attracted by extraordinary displays of physical power, than by the exhibition of moral grandeur." "The miracles he performed, therefore, were necessary to draw attention to him and induce people to listen to him." "Here was something extraordinary; here was a wonderful man, what had he got to say."[4] So far so good. I think so too. I think the evidence often begins its operation of producing belief precisely in this way. I think also that mankind, when something more than "partially enlightened," would be still more attracted, astonished, and convinced by seeing real miracles performed than when only partially enlightened, and more likely to see the "moral grandeur" associated with the "physical power" in the exhibition and display. I hold this to be the natural healthy action of human nature. I have seen as strongly marked indications of morbid mental action in caviling unbelief as ever I saw in easy credulity.


If it should be asked why miracles are not now wrought, if they are so important in convincing men of revealed truth and confirming them in it. I should be obliged to confess in my turn, I do not know. But I will make one suggestion which may have a  possible bearing upon the subject of inquiry. The evidences of religion must not be so great as to render unbelief an impossibility. If they were so, there would be an end of religious faith; or if faith could exist under such circumstances, I see not how it could be imputed for righteousness, as I suppose true faith always is. If they were so, the past and  the future would be merged in the present, time and distance be annihilated, the invisible made visible, faith changed to sight and intuition. The fact seems to be, there is a class of minds which are not content to believe and trust as other minds do. They must know. A portion of this class, almost of course, come to imagine (and perhaps it is happy for them) that they do know. The greater part, as I am led to apprehend, finding after some struggles that they cannot know, cease to believe. I say to persons of this turn of mind, weigh and hoard up evidence, value and balance probabilities, as you do in most of the concerns of this life; it is not consistent with your present dependence and pupilage that you should know everything.


Again, the writer last quoted says, "Miracles which are interruptions of the natural course of events, occurring at distant intervals, seem admirably calculated to produce this effect: to raise men's minds from second causes to the First Cause, and to show them that nature is but what He wills."[5] The writer must at least have been near the kingdom of God when he penned this. One step more, and all I ask would have been conceded, and the whole question concerning miracles, in their capacity of evidence, would have been reduced to what I would gladly have it: a question of more or less. There should be great charity for those who believe a little, if the little faith is of the genuine kind and stamp. It is still better to believe much, the evidence being answerable, as well as to love much, when the object of affection is lovely. But the language seems carefully guarded against the inference that the writer intends to take the last step. Perhaps he remembered that he had said before, when in a less believing state of mind, "Miracles can prove nothing but our ignorance." "The miraculous events recorded in the Bible may have occurred for aught I know, but they are of no value as evidences of Christianity."[6] Another of the writers before quoted says, "It is not to be disputed that they had a place and performed a part in the communication of truth from heaven."[7] Similar concessions might be multiplied from similar sources, and yet there is manifestly great and earnest labor to depreciate the evidence of miracles.


I now come to the more particular reason for which I have taken notice of the inability of those, who deny the value of the Christian miracles as evidence, to give any satisfactory account of the main object for which the miracles were wrought. I wish to place this inability, and their views of miracles generally, in contrast with what those who performed and those who witnessed the miracles said and thought of them. I see not how this understanding or believing so little, or perhaps nothing, of the object for which the miracles were wrought is to be reconciled with that profession of belief in the truthfulness of the New Testament writers, and their competence to make correct records and to teach Christianity—in a word, with that reverence for Scripture and the truth of Scripture, and the divine origin and importance of that truth, for which I nevertheless give them, at least those I have quoted, fraternal Christian credit.


When the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus with the inquiry, "Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?," in that same hour he cured many of infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits, and unto many blind he gave sight. "Then Jesus answering said unto them, Go tell John what things ye have seen and heard, how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the Gospel is preached" (Luke 7:20-22). "The works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do bear witness of me that the Father hath sent me" (John 5:36). I suppose it will not be questioned that the Saviour here refers to his miraculous works. "The works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me" (John 10:25). "If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do, if ye believe not me, believe the works, that ye may know and believe that the Father is in me, and I in him" (John 10:37, 38). "Believe me, that I am in the Father and the Father in me, or else believe for the very works' sake" (John 14:11). "If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin; but now have they both seen, (that is, seen the works,) and hated both me and my Father" (John 15:24). The opinion of Nicodemus, a contemporary, and probably an eyewitness, has already been quoted. Others were of like opinion. "Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did (the miracle of the five loaves), said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world" (John 6:14). "And many of the people believed on him and said, When Christ cometh, will he do more miracles than those which this man hath done?" (John 7:31). Is no inference to be drawn from the passage last quoted, concerning the grounds of the belief of those people, represented to be many in number? The opinion of John, the evangelist, apostle, and beloved disciple, may be entitled to some weight. His opinion may be inferred, in the first place, from the astonishment he expresses at the unbelief of certain Jews: "But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him" (John 12:37). His opinion is, in the second place, declared in announcing his object in writing his Gospel: "Many other signs truly did Jesus, in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, ye might have life through his name" (John 20:30, 31). Peter was another favorite companion and disciple. What does he say? "Ye men of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves know" (Acts 2:22). I marvel, beyond my powers of utterance, when I view these and other like passages in contrast with some recently declared opinions. Surely there is mutual need of the charity, which hopeth all things and believeth all things.


Thus far I have endeavored, in estimating the Christian miracles, to occupy the position of the original eyewitnesses. I will now take the position which we all actually occupy at the present time. It will be expected that I should show how the Christian miracles are evidences of Christianity as a divine revelation now, and to us, who never saw a miracle performed.


I admit, in the first place, that the miracles are not the only evidence of the truth of Christianity, nor the only evidence of its divine origin and authority. I admit that no single evidence is so strong in itself as it is in combination with the other evidences which pertain to the case. I admit, and contend, that it is the accumulation of the whole evidence, rather than the force of any one singly, which makes it comparatively easy to believe, and very difficult to one who has duly weighed the whole evidence to disbelieve. I see the wisdom of the divine economy and grace in furnishing variety of evidence adapted to the varieties of the human intellect. I admit that the evidence of the miracles is not the first in order to be presented to the mind of the modern unbeliever or misbeliever. New miracles, if one could do such, would be the precise thing; but before one can receive a lasting impression from any record, he must believe the record. That the miracles cannot sustain the revelation, but that it is faith in the revelation which can alone sustain the miracles, I totally deny. Such may be the order and sequence of faith in some minds, for aught I know. They may first believe in the revelation as such, and then in the miracles subsequently and consequently; but such is not the order of faith in all minds, I think in very few really believing in Christianity as a revelation.


We are then, in the first place, in order to convince the unbeliever that Christianity is a revelation from God, to bring forth the whole evidence, external and internal, or so much and such parts of it as may be needed to convince him that the New Testament is a record of facts, as they actually occurred, including the wonderful works, that the wonders were wrought, that the parables and other sayings were spoken, that Jesus lived, labored, died, and rose again, as is recorded of him—in one word, that the New Testament is not fiction, but true history. This is the first step in instructing the ignorant and convincing the faithless. In this process, I think as highly, and would make as free use of the internal evidence, as any man; and I would appeal to every intellectual and moral power and principle which I knew or suspected to be in man. I am fully persuaded that the internal evidences of Christianity have never yet been drawn out and placed in all their attractive beauty and convincing power before men's minds, as they may be, and therefore ought to be, and at some future time will be.


This is not an occasion to enter into the details, but, in the method here briefly indicated, I will suppose a belief in the facts recorded in the New Testament is firmly established in the mind, a belief that Jesus lived as is recorded, put forth the claims, said the words, and did the works, and finally suffered, died, and rose again, all as is recorded of him in the New Testament. Now this belief includes, among other things, a belief of the wonderful works as facts, and so far I would not desire a firmer and fuller confession of faith than some of the writers, to whom I have referred in this discussion, have made. But here it is, at this very point, after we are brought to believe in the facts as facts, that, at the present day, the operation of the miracles as evidence comes in and shows us what is the true intrinsic character of the words, sayings, truths, and other facts with which the miracles are associated in the record. Are these, to which I say the miracles are stamp, seal, and witness, a revelation from God, or are they only the high imaginings of men, in whom there was a somewhat extraordinary development of some of the attributes and powers of the human mind and soul? Here we find ourselves brought back nearly to the original position of eyewitnesses. We have admitted the facts. We have virtually said we believe them as truly as if we had seen them. We must now proceed to the questions—By what power were the works wrought? And to what purpose?—in the same manner as if we had been original eyewitnesses. We must necessarily lack something of their vividness of impression from personally witnessing the wonders; but we must henceforth judge of them and of the purpose intended by them upon the same general principles, which would be brought into operation by an eyewitness. And by the same mental process we come to the same conclusion, namely, the works were wrought by the power of God to establish the authority of his Son as a messenger from heaven, whatever other or ulterior purposes they may have also embraced, or are yet to answer. To be sure the miracles are not now, and never were, evidence of the truth of the historical records. As facts they are to be evinced in the same manner in which other facts are proved, only requiring, as extraordinary facts, more strong and abundant proof and testimony. But the entire history, in which they are contained, being first shown to be true, then the miracles show what the character of the true history is, namely, that it is a history of a revelation made by God to men, just as they showed to the original eyewitnesses and auditors that he who spake to them came from God, was commissioned as God's messenger, and spake God's truth.


The present value of the miracles as evidence, as modifying the result in "the last analysis" and giving character to one's faith, may perhaps be rendered still more conspicuous by supposing all accounts of the miracles and all allusions to them to be blotted from the records, or rather never to have been in the records. Suppose then every account of every miracle and all allusions to miracles, including of course the resurrection of Jesus and all reasoning from it to the resurrection and future life of man, to be out of the record. Suppose the rest remaining, just as we find it, or (to make the supposition as favorable as possible to the adverse side of the question) with the periods finished and rounded so that no unseemly chasm should meet the reader's eye. Suppose the New Testament to be this, and to have been precisely this from the beginning. Where would Christianity upon this hypothesis be at this time? And where would it have been for many ages past? I will not presume to say positively, but I will frankly state my apprehensions. I apprehend that as an authoritative and practically efficacious system, it would have been slumbering in the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.


But some one may start and say, “You surely forget yourself. By the very hypothesis, the records of the parables and of much more which is exceedingly, nay supereminently, valuable, would be still extant, and what it is now. True, and how would it be regarded? What would be thought and said of it, by the wise men of the present age? I think it possible some of them might say as follows: —Socrates was one lovely incarnation of the Divinity, Plato another, and there seem to have been many others in ancient times; and, among them all, none more lovely, nor in some respects so much so, as Jesus, the low born Nazarene. But the obscurity of his birth and family, his want of education and efficient helpers, the melancholy temperament or distemperament of his mind, and the gloomy forebodings of his soul, prevented him from effecting any extensive reform during the little time he lived. His premature and infamous death, though marked throughout with injustice and cruelty on the part of his slayers, soon put an end to whatever hopes might have been entertained of him in his lifetime. The records of him, which are extant, are more than rare curiosities of antiquity. They contain the loveliest and some of the sublimest views of God which have ever been uttered by man. They inculcate a morality singularly, nay exquisitely, pure, so pure that whoever pays sufficient attention to it to understand it cannot fail to regret that he lives in a world in which it is, for the most part, impracticable. Long after he has closed the volume, so seldom read and so little regarded at the present day, he will detect himself in wishing that the itinerant prophet of Palestine had been placed in a situation to bring his schemes for the reformation and improvement of mankind to the sure test of experiment. Is this altogether a fancy sketch? Be it so. I am confident it was other persons' fancies, which first suggested its lineaments to my fancy. I take no pleasure in viewing it, now it is drawn out and the coloring laid on. I relish it as little as any of you can. But I will be true to my undertaking. I will speak my fears as well as my faith.


I come, now, in conclusion, to the only consideration which could have fully determined me to agitate this subject, at this time. I am persuaded that the most prevalent unbelief concerning the Christian miracles is unbelief of the facts, and that the manner in which they have recently been objected against, as evidence, has contributed, and does contribute, to the prevailing unbelief. Those whom I have quoted, and some others alluded to, believe the facts. I rejoice that they do. They also avow a firm belief in Christianity as a divine revelation. I cordially give them full credit for sincerity in their professions. But there are others who entertain and express different views. They either doubt or altogether deny the facts. Their opinion is that no such things were actually done—that the accounts of them were invented and interwoven with the other accounts in the New Testament, of which last mentioned some are probably true. Others think the wonders related had some foundation in fact, but were greatly exaggerated and distorted in the records of a wonder-loving age and people. I honestly think many of these unbelievers and skeptics are much confirmed in their unbelief by the manner in which they find the miracles regarded and spoken of by those who receive them as facts, but deny their character as real miracles, or their value as evidences of Christianity, or perhaps both. They do not comprehend (is it wonderful that they do not?) how a man can believe the facts, according to the plain record, and still estimate them at no more value. One of the clearest minded unbelievers in Christianity as a divine revelation whom I ever chanced to meet contended with me that it was alike impossible for human testimony to render a miracle credible, or to resist the evidence of a miracle actually witnessed. "I contend," said he, "that the Jews never saw the works recorded to have been done, for if they had seen them they certainly would have believed." I believe, therefore, that mischief is doing, in the manner which I have pointed out, however little it may be intended. I think so not merely in consequence of my reasoning upon the tendencies of what I consider a wrong theory and estimate of the facts in question, but from what I read, from what I hear others say, from what I have heard unbelievers avow. Now the tendency of unbelief in the Christian miracles as facts, I need state in no other words than one of the writers before quoted has furnished to my use: "The miracles of the New Testament are so interwoven with the texture of the narrative, and make up so essential a part of it, that I cannot deny them without casting suspicion on the whole narrative itself."[8]


I shall not be expected, on this occasion, to bring forward the proofs with which my limited intercourse with society has furnished me, that there is much prevailing skepticism respecting the actual occurrence of the miraculous facts recorded in the New Testament. Let a few quotations from certain writers stand instead. Speaking of the Christian miracles, one of these writers says, "By some they are rejected as essentially incredible. By others, who recognize the divinity of the words and character of Jesus, they are neither acknowledged nor denied."[9] There is then, in the opinion of this writer, himself a believer in Christianity and in the miraculous facts, the kind of skepticism which I have also found, and whose tendency, according to another writer just quoted, is so threatening to the whole New Testament narrative. The writer of a letter recently published, addressed to Andrews Norton, says, "It is impossible for us to know, except by the mere declaration of the apparent performer, whether an alleged miracle be a miracle or not."[10] Again, speaking of the testimony we have as to the actual performance of the wonderful works recorded in the gospels, he says, "There are many serious and weighty objections to be urged as to that matter, the quarter part of which never yet have been urged, much less answered."[11] In another recent pamphlet, a parade is made of the several difficulties, which, as the writer supposes, hinder us from proving the reality of particular miracles. One of these difficulties is, "The authority of the Evangelists is not quite satisfactory."[12] The same writer thinks "it would be difficult to prove in a court of justice the reality of any one of the miracles ascribed to Jesus in the gospels, with the exception of his resurrection." Depend upon it, Brethren, the unbelief which is most rife and most to be dreaded is unbelief of the miraculous facts. I would ask, with all seriousness and deference, whether this unbelief or its mischievousness is likely to be diminished by reducing the marvelousness, denying the current value, or posing the unsophisticated mind concerning the design of the facts themselves.


"But what shall we do?" say those who take the other side of the question which has now been agitated. "We believe the glorious Gospel of the blessed God. We wish others to believe. We cannot receive the Christian miracles as evidence ourselves. We find others cannot; and we find some who doubt or even deny the miraculous facts. But we would persuade all to embrace the faith of the Gospel and abide in it. What shall we do?" I say, urge other evidence, such as you do receive and can urge—urge it as strongly as you please, as strongly as you can. You can do this without any the least reference to miracles—certainly without anything which shall tend to undermine others' faith, or to excite others' fears. "But," say they, "we cannot acquiesce in what is to us a false theory and estimate of miracles. We must speak out our own views freely." So be it then. Others also have spoken, and may continue to speak freely their views. We will all speak our views of truth, and of error and its consequences likewise, when we feel it to be our duty so to do. We may all have our fears as well as our hopes of consequences, but we need not turn alarmists and be overwhelmed by our fears. God's truth is not to be prostrated by the efforts and imaginations and impotent strivings of men. Only let us speak what we believe to be the truth in love, and the God of truth will no doubt cause error gradually to vanish away, and the truth to prevail forever.


[1] This was the subject of the Address, assigned by the Standing Committee of the Conference.

[2] [Orestes A. Brownson,] Charles Elwood [: or the Infidel Converted (Boston, 1840)], p. 237.

[3] [William H. Furness,] Jesus and his Biographers [Philadelphia, 1838], p. 256, 257.

[4] Charles Elwood, p. 237, 238.

[5] Charles Elwood, p. 239.

[6] Charles Elwood, p. 24. It is but fair to add that a belief in the miracles, as facts, is fully avowed by Mr. Brownson in his Elwood.

[7] Jesus and his Biographers, p. 255.

[8] Charles Elwood, p. 236.

[9] Jesus and his Biographers, p. 236.

[10] [George Ripley,] Letter to Andrews Norton, p. 35.

[11] Idem. p. 39.

[12] Levi Blodgett, “The Previous Question.”


Coming soon: The conservatives strike again with Francis Greenwood's "Historical Christianity"


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