Jacksonian Miscellanies, #37

November 11, 1997

Topic: Henry Ware's Letters to Trinitarians and Calvinists

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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The following is an episode in one of the "pamphlet" wars on theology that were common in America in the early 19th century.

In 1805, when the Unitarian minister Henry Ware was made Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, the Orthodoxy gave the institution up for lost. This lead to the foundation of a conservative theological seminary at Andover, which made Leonard Woods its first professor of theology (he served for the next 38 years).

In 1820, Dr. Woods reacted strongly to William Ellery Channing's ordination sermon for Jared Sparks -- a famous statement of the Unitarian position. Over the next two years, Henry Ware defended Channing; Dr. Woods counterattacked, and the book from which the following it taken resulted. The whole episode was nicknamed the "Wood 'n' Ware Controversy".

This section of Ware's argument consists, in large part, of a cogent critique of Woods' mode of attack. He bitingly compares the orthodox to materialist philosophers in their denial of free will: "I know, indeed, that Hume, Godwin, and others, who hold some philosophical positions in common with the orthodox, ... confound together physical and moral qualities..."; he draws the conclusion that the orthodox argument, like that of Godwin, will lead to the conclusion that "the murderer is no more to be blamed than the dagger." Like both Hayne and Webster, in their 1830 "debate", he makes witty analogy to warfare: "It is sometimes the policy of inferior combatants to carry the war into a quarter, where there is no opposition.", while illustrating the elaborate feigned deferrence of the era's debating style, when he follows that up with "But such a motive and design cannot be attributed in the present case." No indeed; our worth opponent Dr. Woods would never stoop so low!


Occasion of the present publication. State of the controversy. Manner of conducting it. Charge of inconsistency answered. Agreement between some orthodox and infidel writers. Another charge of inconsistency answered. Statement of the question at issue on the subject of depravity corrected.

WHEN I published nearly two years ago, "Letters addressed to Trinitarians and Calvinists,'' it was my hope not to be called upon to pursue any further the discussions, in which they were employed. But the Reply of Dr. Woods to those Letters, which is now before the public, has rendered it proper for me, I think, to offer some further thoughts on the several subjects of discussions and remarks on his manner of treating them. I shall accordingly address to you a few additional Letters in which I hope to be able to satisfy you, that the state of the controversy is not changed, and that the great points at issue between us remain, as they stood before. My opponent had doubtless good reason to felicitate himself as he does, (p. 6) "on the benefit he could derive from the frankness," (he might have added, perhaps, want of controversial skill and caution) of the person. with whom he was contending. Though I trust to be able to show, that the benefit is to himself only, as an accomplished disputant, and not, as he flatters himself, to the cause he maintains. That will be found to derive less advantage from the circumstance, than he seems to promise himself.

I think it necessary, in the outset, to remind you of the state of the controversy, because you are otherwise in danger of losing sight of the points at issue, and of having your attention directed to subordinate circumstances, which are so apt, in the course of discussion, to be allowed to take their place. For this purpose I must call your attention to the origin and progress of the discussion.

The occasion, in which it originated, was a Discourse delivered by Dr. Channing at the ordination of the Rev. Mr. Sparks at Baltimore, in May 1819. A part of that Discourse, in which the doctrines of Calvinism were spoken of, was attacked by Dr. Woods, who complained that the doctrines referred to were misrepresented, professing at the same time to give a correct statement of them, as they are now held in this country by those, who assume for their system the title of Orthodoxy; and undertaking also to defend them, as constituting the true system of christianity, agreeing with our experience and clearly taught by Revelation.

The important points of doctrine, you will recollect, which he maintained in a series of Letters addressed to Unitarians, were, The total depravity of human nature, particular personal election, atonement by the death of Christ, and the necessity of special divine influence in producing holiness. Those Letters were published in the spring of 1820. In the month of August of the same year, the writer of these pages attempted an answer to them in Letters addressed to Trinitarians and Calvinists. In those letters he endeavored to show, that the doctrines of orthodoxy, as stated by Dr. Woods, were not taught in the bible, were not supported by experience, and could not be reconciled with the moral character of God. The writer, at the same time, took occasion to state distinctly, his own particular views upon each of the several subjects in controversy.

In the book which furnishes my apology for addressing you once more in these Letters, Dr. Woods has appeared again in defence of the doctrines maintained in his former publication, and in reply to the objections, which I had urged against them. With what degree of success, you will be able to judge, after having read what he has written, and what I have now to allege in answer.

Nothing will be found, I am persuaded, which, upon a fair examination, will be thought to affect the evidence of any one of the main articles in the scheme of scriptural divinity, which I endeavored to support in my Letters. The reader, who gives himself the trouble to make the necessary comparison of passages referred to, will perceive, without the aid of these pages, that although Dr. Woods has been able to fasten some apparent inconsistencies and absurdities, and perhaps you will think after all that can be said, some real ones upon his antagonist; they are yet of such a nature, as not to affect at all the truth of the points at issue. but only the conclusiveness of my reasoning upon them? or still more frequently the propriety of some term or phrase which I have employed. They serve to show, not the weakness of the cause, but that its strength has not been fully displayed; not that the Unitarian doctrines are incapable of a fair support but that the best support has not been given them, of which they are capable.

It accordingly makes a part of my present design to show, that whatever advantage Dr. Woods may seem to have obtained in detecting apparent inconsistencies in the explanation and defence of the Unitarian doctrines the evidence of the doctrines is not affected.

But I hope also to do more than this. I hope to satisfy you, and I think I shall be able to do it, that the inconsistencies so ingeniously detected and so faithfully displayed are, in general, if not in every instance, apparent only; and that they will disappear upon a fair presentation of the true meaning of the passages, from a comparison of which they were drawn.

I mean not by this to intimate any unfair or dishonorable intentions in Dr. Woods. I will not allow myself to believe him capable of any intentional argumentative unfairness. I only mean, that in the discussion of religious or moral subjects for popular use, one can hardly employ words with such philosophical exactness and so constantly guard against objection that metaphysical subtlety shall not be able to bring together expressions, which seem to be irreconcileable with each other. And there is certainly, at first view, something extremely imposing, and apt to make a strong impression, in an array of inconsistencies and contradictions spread before one in strong relief and in broad characters. Our first thought is, that little reliance is to be placed on a writer, who so exposes himself. Yet, in reality, there is nothing, perhaps, upon which we have less reason to depend. For suppose, all that can be asked, the inconsistency to be as great in reality, as it seems to be; what does it prove?- not that the cause is a bad one, but only that it is unskillfully or carelessly managed;-not that the doctrine is false, but that the evidence of its truth has been less successfully stated than it might have been. But we are not usually required to admit so much as this. Such is the imperfection of language, and such the real difficulty of some subjects of speculation, that, as I have before observed, it is scarcely possible for words to be used with such accuracy and precision, and with such care, that a vigilant and acute antagonist shall not be able to discover inconsistencies, which may be so presented, as to seem of considerable importance. I could illustrate this by a hundred instances taken from the sacred writers, where we are constantly called to reconcile apparent contradictions; and where, by the fairest modes of interpretation, we are able to do it with entire satisfaction without prejudice either to the writer or the doctrine. It would have been no difficult task to discover apparent inconsistencies in the book, which I had occasion to notice in my former Letters. But had I pursued that course, the author would doubtless have charged me, and I know not how I could have repelled the charge, with a disposition to cavil, rather than reason; and would probably have been able to show, that a little more patient and impartial attention to the subject, or a little more argumentative fairness, would have presented to me a meaning, that implied no absurdity and was chargeable with no contradiction.

With these preliminary remarks, I now invite your attention to the several charges of inconsistency to which, in the book before me, I am represented to have exposed myself, in my statements of the Unitarian doctrine, and reasonings respecting it.

The first that I shall notice is contained in the passage in pp. 13 to 17 inclusive, and refers to p. 26 in the Letters to Trinitarians and Calvinists, compared with pp. 20, 31 and 41, of the same. *

* I refer always to the pages of the octavo edition of the Letters.

Upon looking at these several passages with a reference to the alleged inconsistency, my first thought was, that I might safely leave the subject without any explanatory remarks, only requesting you to read the whole of the several passages attentively; assured that you could not fail to perceive, that it only offers a remarkable instance of an appearance of inconsistency produced by a dexterous juxtaposition of separate passages, where a careful examination of the subject only is needed to show, that no real inconsistency exists.

But lest there should be any readers, who may not have the patience to recur to passages and their connexion, and make the requisite examination, or may not have the means of doing it, or may be insensible of the need of doing it, not aware how liable a fair and honourable disputant, of peculiar talents, turn of mind, and habits of speculation may be to impose upon himself and thus upon his reader by his own ingenuity; it seems necessary for me to take the labour upon myself by showing where the fallacy lies in the present case, and in several others which follow.

The inconsistency with which I am charged (Dr. Woods' Reply, p.. 16) amounts to this, and this only, though it is again and again brought to view, and placed in different points of light, viz. That while in the formal statement of the doctrine, which I meant to maintain respecting the natural state of man, I assert, that man is by nature free from all moral corruption, as well as destitute of positive holiness, by nature no more inclined to sin than to virtue, and equally capable in the ordinary use of his faculties, and faith the common assistance afforded him, of either; yet, in discussing the subject, I several times say what implies, that by their natural birth men become moral, have a moral disposition or character, which is good or holy in such a sense, as to entitle them to the Saviour's complacency, and make them heirs of his kingdom.

Now, by reading the whole passage and applying the principles of interpretation, which we usually apply when we discover an apparent contradiction between two sentences of a writer of any character for common sense and consistency; you will be satisfied, that had my ingenious friend as faithfully taxed his ingenuity to ascertain the real meaning of the writer in the passage before him, as he has done to detect and present to view an alleged inconsistency, he would have saved me, himself, and the reader some waste of labour and time. For, notwithstanding what is so repeatedly insinuated, that he was at a loss what my real opinion was, and what was the position, that I meant to maintain, he will nothe cannot deny, that in the direct statement of my opinion on the subject, there is no ambiguity, no room for any reader to be at a loss, what is the precise position, which I meant to maintain. It is, as I have before stated, That man is by nature, that is, as he is born into the world, equally free from sin and destitute of holiness, no more inclined to vice than to virtue, and equally capable, in the ordinary use of his faculties, and with the common assistance afforded him, of either. And this position, you will recollect, is maintained in opposition to the doctrine of orthodoxy on the same subject, which is, "That man is by nature, that is, as he is born into the world, totally depraved, inclined only to evil, and wholly incapable of any good inclination or motion, until such inclination or motion is produced by an irresistible act of the spirit of God."

Now, in support of my own position, and in opposition to that of orthodoxy, among other arguments, I took occasion to apply that, which is drawn from the earliest indications of character in children. But in speaking of the innocence, gentleness, kindness, and love of truth in children am I to be charged with asserting or implying, that they are holy by nature, in contradiction to the express assertion at the head of the argument? Consider only what the nature of the argument required. Dr. Woods' position is, that human beings come; into existence totally depraved, inclined only to evil. If this be the truth, the earliest indications of character in children ought to be evil only, unmingled wickedness, sin without alloy. My position, on the other hand, is, that human beings come into existence innocent, and without any greater bias to sin than to holiness; not inclined to holiness only, nor did I say to holiness more than to sin. If this be the truth, the earliest indications of character will be of a mixed nature; and at an early period, as soon indeed as the child becomes capable of moral action, we shall be likely to find in its dispositions and in its character as much of that which is good, as of that which is evil. This, I endeavored to show, is in fact the case, and that our doctrine is fully confirmed by experience. I confined myself, indeed, chiefly to the mention of amiable traits and virtuous tendencies; because those of an opposite nature, not being questioned by the orthodox, it was unnecessary to mention.

Now, as it was the object of my argument to show, that whatever early indications there are of bad dispositions or bad tendencies, they are to be attributed to other causes, and furnish no proof of original native depravity; when l had occasion to speak of good dispositions, and good tendencies, common courtesy, one would have thought, should have saved me from the charge of asserting or implying, original native holiness, even although it had not been, as it had, expressly disclaimed. My real meaning must have been perfectly obvious to every reader. It was what the argument required, viz. that the early indications of what is good in children proves, not that they are holy by nature, but only, that they are not totally depraved, since, if they were, none of those indications could have existed. With this explanation in your mind, read the passage, which I have referred to, and you will perceive, that all appearance of inconsistency has vanished.

But I have not yet done with the passage. In my former publication, I had mentioned as proofs, that the nature of man is not totally depraved, that innocence, simplicity, and purity are characteristics of early life; that veracity, kindness, good will, flow from the natural feelings, and that the infant mind early discovers affection, attachment, gratitude toward those from whom it receives kindness. The correctness of this statement of the characteristics of early life, far from being denied by Dr. Woods, is expressly admitted. "These," he says, after quoting them, "are charming names, and I am sensible that charming qualities of human nature are denoted by them." But are innocence, purity veracity, kindness, gratitude and good will, qualities that denote a nature totally depraved, inclined only to evil? What then must be the qualities, that shall denote a nature free from depravity? Will you say, the opposite qualities, impurity, deceit, unkindness, ingratitude, ill­will? I had not asserted, nor was it implied in any thing I did assert, that either or all of these were sufficient alone to constitute a holy man, or, that nothing more than these was required; but I did suppose that they made a part, and an important part of that character, which constitutes conformity to the moral law, and renders him to whom it belongs holy, and acceptable to God.

Nor did I think of comparing these qualities, as Dr. Woods has done, (p. 13) with "beauty of complexion and features, sprightliness of temper, and activity of limbs.'' I knew, indeed, that Hume, Godwin, and others, who hold some philosophical opinions in common with the orthodox, do, on the ground of those opinions and as their legitimate consequence, confound together physical and moral qualities, and assert, that there is as much good desert in a well formed body, as in a well regulated mind or heart; and upon the same principle, that there is no more guilt or blame­worthiness in the murderer, than in the instrument with which he perpetrates the bloody deed. But I had always supposed, that when the Orthodox were charged with these opinions, as the legitimate tendency of their doctrine of human nature, and necessarily connected with it, they would deny the charge, and consider it as a slanderous misrepresentation. And I am at once surprised and sorry to meet with expressions in the book before me, which expose the author to the charge in a manner, which I do not perceive how he is to repel. for if there is no more good desert in innocence, veracity, gratitude and kindness, than in personal beauty, there can be no more guilt in falsehood, ingratitude, or cruelty, than in personal deformity; and he who asserts this need not hesitate to go the length of Godwin,that the murderer is no more to be blamed than the dagger.

A charge of inconsistency of a similar nature occurs, (p. 30) which, by turning to the passage in my Letters, to which it refers, you will perceive has as little foundation as the other.

In proof of the general position, which I have before repeated, viz. that mankind come into the world innocent and pure, objects of the complacency of the Creator, and no more inclined by nature to sin than to holiness; no more disposed to hate and disobey, than to love and obey their Maker, I had urged the manner in which little children are spoken of by our Savior and by St. Paul. Suffer little children to come unto mefor of such is the kingdom of God. Except ye be converted and become as little children &c. I asked, if they were depraved, destitute of holiness, averse from all good, inclined to evil only, enemies of God, subjects of his wrath, justly liable to all punishments, could our Savior declare respecting them, of such is the kingdom of God? In this sentence the acute and vigilant eye of Dr. Woods has fixed itself on the unlucky phrase destitute of holiness, as implying a contradiction to what I had elsewhere said, and what my scheme every where implies, that men do not possess by birth that character of personal holiness, and positive virtue which is necessary to their being christians &c.

Now I am ready to admit, if you will insist in contradiction to the whole tenor of this passage, in which it stands, and to the main position, which I had so often repeated, and stated so explicitly, that I must have used the word holiness here in its technical sense, the charge of inconsistency will lie against me. And what is the consequence? Only this, that I have used a phrase, which expresses a meaning, that I did not intend to express, and which every reader, not excepting Dr. Woods himself, perceives that I did not intend. In the sense, therefore, whether proper or not, in which it was evidently used, no contradiction or inconsistency is implied.

So far as the alleged contradiction consists in the representation of little children as belonging to the kingdom of God. I shall not be held answerable for the propriety of the terms, as I only use the words, that were used by our Savior. Nor do I perceive what is gained or lost by Dr. Woods in adopting the interpretation of Rosenmuller, and understanding the text to mean, not that children belong to the kingdom of God, but that members of Christ's kingdom must be like little children. For upon this interpretation, equally with the other, little children are supposed to have some qualities, which are essential to those, who are to become christians. They have then some good qualities-are not totally depravedare not inclined only to evil

Dr. Woods, however, endeavours to prove, that our Saviour's recommendation of children as objects of imitation to his disciples does not imply (p.. 37) "that children possess any moral excellence or goodness, like that excellence or goodness of christians, which is meant to be set forth by the comparison;" because christians are in a similar manner, for the purpose of illustration, likened to sheep, lambs, doves; and it is asked, "do sheep, lambs, and doves possess moral excellence?" They are compared also, it is said, "to salt, light, and the branches of a vine." But to the whole reasoning and appeal in this passage, specious as it seems at first view, a single consideration may be opposed, which will suffice to show, that it has no weight. It is this, that every such illustration by a comparison is to be interpreted according to the nature of the subject in discussion and of the object of comparison. When christians are compared to a vine &c. we are very certain, that it cannot refer to any intellectual or moral quality in the vine, because a vine is in its nature incapable of such a quality; but are we hence to infer, that there is no reference to moral qualities, when a child is the subject of comparison, who is capable of such qualities? Some degree of presumption at least, that moral qualities were referred to, one would think was to be drawn from the very circumstance, that a subject was made choice of for the illustration, which was capable of moral qualities. And we should be confirmed in the opinion, that it certainly was so, if, as in the present case, the whole transaction clearly indicated, that moral, and only moral qualities were in the mind of the speaker. Dr. Woods, however, is of a different opinion. He thinks they are not moral, but natural qualities. And he says, (p.. 40) "The plain truth is, that the amiable natural qualities, which distinguish little children, are made use of to illustrate the amiable moral qualities, which ought to belong to christians." You will here doubtless wish with me to learn, what are the names of those moral qualities of christians, which are said to resemble, and are represented by the natural qualities of children. The amiable natural qualities, which, it is not denied, belong to children, are innocence, purity, veracity, kindness, gratitude, &c. You will wish to know what are the amiable moral qualities of christians, which these represent, and whether they are known by other names than innocence, purity, veracity, &c. You will think it also a singular concession in one, who professes to maintain the doctrine of total native depravity, that the qualities above mentioned are the natural qualities of children; that beings by nature destitute of all good, and inclined only to evil, are yet by nature kind, grateful, pure, innocent, and true; i.e. have the very qualities which, in christians, are moral qualities.

It is important for me here to call your attention to an incorrectness in Dr. Woods' statement of the question at issue on the subject of depravity; because it is a circumstance, by which the reasoning in this and the following chapters is materially affected. He says, (p. 13) " The real question is, whether holy love to God and man is the first moral affection, which human beings generally exercise after they become moral agents, and are expressly informed what God requires of them." Now this is so far from being the real question, that it has made no part of the question between us. It has neither been asserted nor denied; nor do I know, that the affirmative is maintained by any one. The real question at issue is a different one. It is not, whether the first moral affection be generally holy, but whether it be always unholy; not whether holy love to God and men be the invariable or general characteristic of our first affections; but whether our first affections and inclinations be evil, and evil only. You perceive the wide difference of these questions. With the former I have no concern. The latter was opposed in my former letters, as being supported neither by scripture nor experience; and it is the only point to which Dr. Woods' defence ought now to have been directed. Why he has chosen to direct it to another point, about which there has been no controversy, he will doubtless be able to say. It is sometimes the policy of inferior combatants to carry the war into a quarter, where there is no opposition. But such a motive and design cannot be attributed in the present case.

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