In 1811, the third edition of Webster’s “Peculiar Doctrines of the Gospel Explained and Defended,” from a letter to a friend in Boston, was published. In it, Noah Webster asserts “that the doctrines of Divine Sovereignty, the Divinity of Christ, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and free grace through Christ, are fundamental in the Gospel scheme of salvation.” Following are excerpts:
New Haven, February 23rd, 1809
I have read the little pamphlet entitled, a “Review of Hints on Evangelical Preaching,” which you sent me, requesting my thoughts on the subjects of which it treats. That the writer and publisher of that review may have been actuated by very honest motives, I would not dare to question. Multitudes of respectable and intelligent men in this country, and probably in Europe, entertain the same unfavorable opinion of what is called evangelical preaching. I once entertained similar opinions, though probably not to the full extent with the writer of the review. But I was opposed to everything that looked like enthusiasm in religion, and talked much about the propriety of being a rational Christian…
That some preachers, who call themselves evangelical, utter opinions which are not evangelical, is not at all improbable; nor is it to be expected that no man, who ministers in holy things should go too far in depreciating the moral duties. Minds, impelled by zeal, may acquire a momentum that may carry them beyond the Gospel mark at which they aim…
I am probably as sincere a friend to the moral duties, as the reviewer; but that these constitute the groundwork of the Gospel, I believe to be a fatal error, a rock on which perhaps more intelligent men are shipwrecked than on any other. Were there no other defect in this creed, this alone would overturn it, that no man, destitute of a principle of holiness, or a supreme love and regard to his Maker, can perform the moral duties, in the manner which the laws of God require. His motives cannot be pure; they cannot spring from the right source; nor will any man, without a higher principle than a mere regard to social happiness ever be able to perform all the moral duties with steadiness and uniformity.
But let us examine this scheme of religion on other grounds. It is the principle of our religion, and of all true religion, that there is a God of infinite perfection, who is the Author of whatever has been created. This Being is man’s Creator, and of course, his sovereign Ruler; and if his sovereign Ruler, He has a right to give laws to man for his government. From God’s sovereignty, or His character as Creator and Governor of the universe, results necessarily his right to the supreme reverence of all the rational beings he has created; and from this sovereignty, and from the perfection of his nature, as well as from his benevolence to man, in creating him, and supplying him with all the means of happiness, results God’s right to man’s highest love and gratitude; for nothing is more obvious than that supreme excellence is entitled to the first place in our esteem. Our first class of duties then respects our Maker, our Preserver, our Benefactor, and Redeemer. These duties, I apprehend, are dictated by reason and natural religion, as well as commanded in the Scriptures. They result necessarily from our relation to the Supreme Being, as the head of the universe.
In the next place, men are made for society. Our natural propensities lead us to associate with each other; and society is necessary to the continuation of the species, as well as to our improvement, protection, and happiness. From this association of men, and the various interests involved in it, result numerous social duties, which we comprise under the general term, morality. These constitute the second class of the duties of men. This distribution of our duties is precisely that which Moses has made in the Ten Commandments, which were originally divided and engraved on two tables. The first table contained our duties to God; the second, our duties to each other; and this distribution is expressly recognized by our Savior, who declares that the first and great commandment is to love the Lord our God with all the heart, with all the soul, and with all the mind; and that the second, which is like to it, is to love our neighbor as ourselves…
A man may, in this life, perform moral duties, without any particular regard to his Maker, and without any particular relish for His character and government. He may perform good works to his fellow men, even from a sense of their fitness and propriety, without performing a single act of homage to the Supreme Being, although, as I have before remarked, without a reference to God’s will, he will rarely perform them with uniformity, even in the view of the world. But the natural heart is enmity against God; and if such moral man dies without a change in the affections of his heart, what qualification will he possess for that Heaven, whose employment consists in loving and praising God? How will he relish the joys of pure and holy spirits? It is impossible. Hence it appears that regeneration and holiness of heart, are in the very nature and fitness of things necessary to the enjoyment of Heaven; and the Gospel doctrines really stand as well on the immutable order of things in the universe, as on the positive declarations of Christ and His apostles. We are placed on this earth in a state of trial and probation, furnished with intellectual powers to learn the character of God and our own duty; with the Word of God to direct us, and a free will to accept or reject the offers of salvation. To complete the means of salvation, a Mediator has been provided, to make an offering of Himself for our sins and satisfy that law which we have violated, and which we ourselves are certainly unable to satisfy. In this state, the seeds of holiness are to be planted in the heart, and are destined to grow and ripen into a full harvest of felicity in a future life. Holiness, in this life, is the germ of Heaven. But holiness, in a Scriptural sense, and indeed in any sense, is a distinct thing, from a principle of morality. Morality or good works respect our fellow-men; holiness respects God. It is that state of the heart which proceeds from supreme love to God, faith in Christ, and entire submission to the Divine commands. Without this holiness, the Bible informs us, no man shall see the Lord. And this holiness is indispensable to the performance of good works. As faith without works is dead; so good works are the fruit of faith. And according to the Gospel, it is not possible for moral duties to be acceptable to God, unless they proceed from faith and holiness, or from a supreme regard to God’s will, as their spring or motive.
These doctrines involve the necessity of regeneration, a doctrine which many men, called Christians, deny, and which the morality-system utterly excludes. I know not how men who believe the Scriptures can reason away a doctrine so fully and expressly revealed as that of the new-birth. The passages of Scripture which directly assert the necessity of such a change, I need not recite; they must be familiar to you, but I will make a few remarks on this subject.
That the heart of man is naturally destitute of holiness, or true love to God, is equally provable from the Scriptures and from observation. That the natural heart is at enmity with God, one would think any person must admit, who reads history, or observes the state of society within his own view…
Those who proudly rely on their own good works, virtually tell their Maker, they do not want His assistance and grace; and God gives His Holy Spirit to those only who ask it in humility. God is the Sovereign of the universe. He does govern it; He has a right to govern it; and men, if saved, can be saved only on the conditions which He has prescribed. He reserves to Himself the whole glory of saving sinners, and the hearts of His children rejoice in the Divine determination.
I am therefore of opinion that the doctrines of Divine Sovereignty, the Divinity of Christ, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and free grace through Christ, are fundamental in the Gospel scheme of salvation. Those who reject these doctrines appear to me to tear out the vitals of Christianity, leaving nothing but a lifeless skeleton. The cold doctrines of Arminianism almost exclude the Divine agency in man’s salvation. They supersede the necessity of a Redeemer, and of public worship, for morality may be taught in families and schools. In short, they never reach the heart, and appear not to alter the life and character. Such are not the doctrines of the Gospel.
These elevate the soul to God, the Fountain of light, life, and blessings; they subdue the natural pride of the heart, control the passions and change the affections. They infuse a principle of supreme love to God, and create a faith in Christ which tranquilizes the soul, dispels the gloomy anxieties of skepticism, alleviates the cares, and enlivens the joys of life; and to crown all, reposes, with delightful confidence, upon the Almighty Arm of a Redeemer for salvation…”1
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Webster, Noah, L.L.D. The Peculiar Doctrines of the Gospel explained and Defended. In a letter from Noah Webster, Esq. to a friend in Boston. Third Edition. Portland: Published and sold by A. Lyman and Company, J. M’Kown, Printer, 1811. Library of Congress Rare, Book Collection.