Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
By William Law (16861761)
From Second Letter to Bishop of Bangor
AMONGST the vain contemptible things whereof your lordship would create an abhorrence in the laity are the trifles and niceties of authoritative benedictions, absolutions, excommunications. Again, you say, that to expect the grace of God from any hands but His own is to affront Him. And, that all depends upon God and ourselves; that human benedictions, human absolutions, human excommunications, have nothing to do with the favour of God.
It is evident from these maxims (for your lordship asserts them as such) that whatever institutions are observed in any Christian society, upon this supposition, that thereby grace is conferred through human hands, or by the ministry of the clergy, such institutions ought to be condemned, and are condemned by your lordship, as trifling, useless, and affronting to God.
There is an institution, my lord, in the yet established Church of England, which we call confirmation. It is founded upon the express words of Scripture, primitive observance, and the universal practice of all succeeding ages in the Church. The design of this institution is, that it should be a means of conferring grace, by the prayer and imposition of the bishops hands, on those who have been already baptized. But yet, against all this authority both divine and human, and the express order of our own Church, your lordship teaches the laity that all human benedictions are useless niceties, and that to expect Gods grace from any hands but His own is to affront Him.
If so, my lord, what shall we say in defence of the Apostles? We read (Acts viii. 14) that when Philip the deacon had baptized the Samaritans, the Apostles sent Peter and John to them, who having prayed, and laid their hands on them, they received the Holy Ghost, who before was fallen upon none of them; only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
My lord, several things are here out of question: First, that something else, even in the Apostolical times, was necessary, besides baptism, in order to qualify persons to become complete members of the body, or partakers of the grace of Christ. They had been baptized, yet did not receive the Holy Ghost till the Apostles hands were laid upon them. Secondly, that Gods graces were not only conferred by means of human hands, but of some particular hands, and not others. Thirdly, that this office was so strictly appropriated to the Apostles, or chief governors of the Church, that it could not be performed by inspired men, though empowered to work miracles, who were of an inferior order, as Philip the deacon. Fourthly, that the power of the Apostles for the performance of this ordinance was entirely owing to their superior degree in the ministry, and not to any extraordinary gifts they were endowed with, for then Philip might have performed it who was not wanting in those gifts, himself being an evangelist and worker of miracles; which is a demonstration that his incapacity arose from his inferior degree in the ministry.
And now, my lord, are all human benedictions niceties and trifles? Are the means of Gods grace in His own hands alone? Is it wicked, and affronting to God, to suppose the contrary? How then come Peter and John to confer the Holy Ghost by the imposition of their hands? How comes it, that they appropriate this office to themselves? Is the dispensation of Gods grace in His own hands alone? And yet can it be dispensed to us by the ministry of some persons, and not by that of others?
Were the Apostles so wicked as to distinguish themselves by a pretence to vain powers which God had reserved to Himself, and which your lordship supposes, from the title of your preservative, that it is inconsistent with common sense to imagine that God could or would have communicated to men?
Had any of your lordships well-instructed laity lived in the Apostles days, with what indignation must they have rejected this senseless chimerical claim of the Apostles? They must have said, Why do you, Peter and John, pretend to this blasphemous power? Whilst we believe the gospel, we cannot expect the grace of God from any hands but His own. You give us the Holy Ghost! You confer the grace of God! Is it not impious to think that He should make our improvement in grace depend upon your ministry, or hang our salvation on any particular order of clergymen? We know that God is just and good and true, and that all depends upon Him and ourselves, and that human benedictions are trifles. Therefore, whether you Peter, or you Philip, or both or neither of you lay your hands upon us, we are neither better nor worse; but just in the same state of grace as we were before.
The late most pious and learned Bishop Beveridge has these remarkable words upon Confirmation: How any bishops in our age dare neglect so considerable a part of their office, I know not; but fear they will have no good account to give of it, when they come to stand before Gods tribunal.
But we may justly, and therefore I hope with decency, ask your lordship, how you dare perform this part of your office? For you have condemned it as trifling and wicked; as trifling, because it is a human benediction; as wicked, because it supposes grace conferred by the hands of the bishop. If therefore any baptized persons should come to your lordship for confirmation, if you are sincere in what you have delivered, your lordship ought, I humbly conceive, to make them this declaration:
My friends, for the sake of decency and order, I have taken upon me the episcopal character, and, according to custom, which has long prevailed against common sense, am now to lay my hands upon you. But I beseech you, as you have any regard to the truth of the Gospel, or to the honour of God, not to imagine there is anything in this action, more than a useless empty ceremony; for if you expect to have any spiritual advantage from human benedictions, or to receive grace from the imposition of a bishops hands, you affront God, and, in effect, renounce Christianity.