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CIRCULAR LETTER
Philadelphia Baptist Association
"The Prevalence of Infidelity"
By Rev. William Staughton, 1796
      The ministers and messengers of the Baptist Association, held at Philadelphia.

     To the churches they represent, send Christian salutation.
     Christian Brethren, -- According to the good hand of our God upon us, we are again met in Association. With gratitude to Him who is head over all things to the church, we mention, that the various letters we have received from the churches testify, that among them love and peace prevail, and that in like manner harmony has crowned our recent deliberations.

     Accustomed annually to address you, and to derive the theme of our letter from the succession of subjects in our Confession of faith, we expected this year to have set before you the principles and pleasures of Christian liberty and liberty of conscience. Though in this expectation disappointed, we are still desirous of pressing on your minds such reflections as shall be friendly to your advance in knowledge and virtue.

     Not more from the present state of religion, than from the pious hints suggested in your letters, our thoughts are turned to the prevalence of infidelity. With that regret and anxiety which every good man must feel when the godly man ceaseth, and when the wicked prevail, we observe crowds of unreflecting youths, pressing on to ruin, fascinated with systems which, though congenial with depravity, are at an infinite remove from holiness and truth. Our eyes, our ears, affect our hearts, while we perceive the sophistry admired which is pointed against the gospel of Christ, and the course of thought and conversation, which tends to the advancement of guilt and confusion, applauded as fashionable and just.

     To trace this evil to its proper source we must recur to the original depravity of man, but we perceive a less distant cause in the revolution of empire. Our God sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and guides its affairs as his infinite perfections direct, yet its vicissitudes are usually so connected that one event appears naturally to rise out of another. Europe has for ages been deluged in superstition, and even where the reformation had destroyed its servile fetters, among the professors of religion little of the power of godliness was visible.

     We rejoice in the progress of civil liberty, because so intimately related to the liberty with which Christ has made us free; but we perceive that as it moves, papal superstition and protestant insensibility are brought to light. While these are by their advocates termed religion, the infidel, with an air of plausibility, exclaims all religion is vain.

     Permit us, Christian brethren, as those who watch for your souls, to guard your minds against the influence of this prevaling evil. In this unfriendly world, popular sentiments, though evidently erroneous, sometimes produce an unhappy effect on the minds of such as are coming up out of the world. The unavoidable habits of society operating in conjunction with remaining depravity, too frequently give a tone to the thoughts and actions of believers, which is contrary to the simplicity that is in Christ. Brethren, forgive the jealousy we feel, lest they produce this effect among you.

     As an antidote to this evil, we affectionately exhort you to labor after an enlarged acquaintance with divine truth. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom. You have a reason of the hope that is in you, stand prepared, on every proper occasion to give it with meekness and fear. While you implore the teaching of the Spirit of God, search the Scriptures. The religion of Jesus courts the investigation of all, but it has a special claim on the attention of the righteous. Ye are set as a defence of the gospel, the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, is put into your hands, be ambitious to use it with a happy dexterity. Prompt and ingenious are the sons of infidelity in disseminating error; and shall the sons of God be inactive and unskilful in the support of truth? -- Never do the triumphs of an infidel rise higher than when a man of God stands foiled before him.

     But while we urge you to seek an increase of the knowledge of God, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, and, when duty invites, to appear as the advocates of evangelical piety, we beseech you scrupulously to banish a love of vain disputation. Aware of the invincible arguments in favor of the truth as it is in Jesus, and prone to mingle our personal interests with the subject we defend, we are in danger of disputing for the poor reward of victory.

     Remember, brethren, the religion we profess is of infinite moment; seriousness ought to attend all our labors to maintain its truth. If you attempt to defend the gospel with infidel wit and heroism, a wound will be received in the house of a friend; but when you appear in its defence with all the weight of eternal concerns on your minds, the circumstance, like the splendor on the countenance of Moses, will make a rebellious people tremble. It is acknowledged that the shafts of satire are sometimes projected with success against vice and error; but they more frequently fall pointless to the ground. The weapon is dangerous, and in the sacred pages little used. Every sentiment has its natural influence. The tendency of infidelity is to produce ridicule and folly, while wisdom and seriousness are the off-spring of religion. When we by folly and ridicule attempt to overturn popular errors, we give the wicked an easy triumph, by indulging in ourselves the unhappy influence, at the time we condemn the sentiment. But before a holy savor of truth, as before the incense of the altar in Bethel, the lifted arm of every opposing Jeroboam will be dried up.

     But, Brethren, it is not enough that ye maintain the truth by argument: the purity of your walk and conversation will best demonstrate the sincerity and excellency of your faith. Errors have for ages distracted the Christian church; but they have generally originated in the ungodly lives of the professors of religion. The enemies of the cross blend together the gospel of Christ and the lives of its subjects, and, when believers sin, ascribe the iniquity to the gospel itself. At a time like the present, when the adversaries of truth are torturing their invention for new arguments against the cause which ought to be dearer to you than your lives, how ought ye to walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, that by well-doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.

     There is, brethren, an awfulness in piety, before the display of which the most hardened infidel is occasionally confounded. While your conversation is as becometh the gospel of Christ, assure yourselves, that though the ungodly outwardly laugh at and contemn you, they inwardly tremble and approve.

     For nearly a century past shame, arising from derision, has been but little realised in the church: we have long sat peaceful and blest as under vines and fig trees. But in the present day, by appearing as the friends of vital and experimental godliness, by determining, assisted by the Holy Spirit, to follow the Lamb of God, whithersoever he goeth, we must expect to have our ideas pitied as mistaken, and our affections derided as enthusiastic. But to suffer for well-doing is an honor; and while we consider shame for the sake of Jesus, not as an evil patiently to be borne, but as a mark of glory of which, like the apostles, we are accounted worthy, like, them we shall rejoice in him.

     When you enter the sanctuary of the Lord, or retire into your closets, and hold communion with your own hearts, and with the God of your salvation, the hard speeches of the wicked will appear lighter than vanity; and while you reflect, that the natural man knoweth not the things of the Spirit of God, and that base things of the world are chosen, to confound the mighty; for the aversion of the learned and opulent in our day you will as easily account, as for the conduct of the Jews and Greeks, in the days of the apostles, in pronouncing the preaching of the cross a stumbling block and foolishness. As the purity of the gospel is educible from the aversion of wicked men, so the impurity of infidel opinions is demonstrable from their passionate zeal for their diffusion.

     From the earliest ages of time the world has had its course. Lust, idolatry, persecution, and superstition, have successively been as mighty streams on which thousands have been borne along to ruin. At present, infidelity prevails; but it is an evil, and every evil, like the frail body of man, has the principle of decay within itself. An infidel exhibits his sentiments, and considers them as a lamp to the nations. His actions testify it is the lamp of the wicked, and heaven declares the lamp of the wicked shall be put out.

     While the nations rage, and the earth is moved, ye who love the God of Israel and pray for the prosperity of Zion, like venerable Eli, when the Philistines were contending between Ebenezer and Aphek, may tremble for the Ark of the Lord; but not like him shall ye sink under the distressing information, that the ark is taken the kingdom of Jesus overthrown. Universal empire and permanent prosperity, are promised to the great Redeemer of the increase of his dominion and peace there shall be no end. The present spread of infidelity, far from portending the destruction of Christianity, establishes its truths by fulfilling its predicions. The earth is waxing old like a garment, and, like smoke, the heavens will shortly vanish away. All flesh is grass and the grass withereth, but the word of God, which, by the gospel, is preached unto you, shall stand for ever. Banish Christianity from the world, and what remains but guilt and death? But this is a living system, and must prevail till the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ.

     When pursuing the interests of Zion, we are fellow workers with God. Do we pray for the coming of the Saviour's kingdom? Martyrs, at the foot of the altar, join our prayers. Do we groan? We groan with the creation, which travails for the redemption of the body of the righteous. Do we expect the period? We expect with, Jesus. At the right hand of his Father he sits, henceforth expecting until his enemies be made his footstool.

     The God of heaven baffles the designs of Satan, and laughs at the rage of the wicked against his anointed. When persecution was stirred up at Jerusalem, the disciples indeed were scattered; but by their dispersion their sound went out into all lands, and their words unto the end of the world. As persecution was formerly made to promote the Gospel by separating the disciples, in the present age, infidelity appears to answer the same grand design, by uniting them together. The distinctions which till lately destroyed the happiness of different sects of christians, lose their importance, while they prepare to encounter a common enemy. When the tribes of Israel were at peace with surrounding nations, contentions commonly existed among themselves; but, when a foreign foe drew near to battle, the different tribeships were forgotten, while in one great band, as the people of God, they marched to contest and victory.

     Amid the important revolutions with which we are daily familiar, let us pray that, standing with our loins girt about, and our lamps burning, we may be prepared for every event, and that, our work on earth being finished, we may enter into the joy of our Lord.
      Signed in behalf of the whole,
      SAMUEL JONES, Moderator.
     BURGISS ALLISON, Clerk.

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[From Philadelphia Baptist Association Minutes, 1796. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]



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