Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter
William Sprague, 1835

The Proper Mode of Treating Religious Error

Notwithstanding I have advised you to search the Scriptures as the only infallible standard of religious faith, and to admit no doctrine into your creed, merely upon human testimony you cannot suppose that I am indifferent as to the result of your religious inquiries. I have indeed no fear, if you read the Bible with an honest heart, and with a sincere desire to know the truth that you will fall into any fundamental or dangerous error. But after all, it must be acknowledged, that not a small number of those, who have made the Word of God their constant study, and have employed all the power of genius, and all the apparatus of criticism, in their biblical pursuits have given us the result of their labors in systems of religion, which have nothing to sanctify or elevate the affections; nothing to hush the clamors of conscience; nothing to illumine the cheerlessness of affliction, or the desolation of the grave.

Make it a rule never to withhold your charity on any slight or equivocal evidence. To declare your conviction that a person holds 'another gospel', is a thing of too much importance to be hazarded on any grounds which are not the most satisfactory. Better far to err on the extreme of forbearance than intolerance. Mild measures are much better fitted to exert a reclaiming influence, than severe ones. A little severity may place a religious errorist forever beyond your reach; whereas, a kind treatment of him may be the means of dissipating his errors, and establishing him in the truth.

Moreover, I would advise you never to impute to others, doctrines which they disavow, because they may appear to you to form an essential part of their general system. Cheerfully give them credit for every truth they will acknowledge; and be very slow to decide that the connection between a fundamental doctrine, and one which is not so, is so close, that the latter may not be given up, while the former is with some degree of consistency retained. The system of religious truth is indeed perfectly harmonious; but its parts are not all equally important. It is a structure from which you may remove some remote appendage and you will only injure its proportion, or deface its beauty; but take away one of its main pillars and the whole fabric tumbles to ruins.

Set it down as a principle, therefore, that all minor differences in religious opinion are to be treated with candor and leniency. It is a reproach to the Christian cause, that the jealousy and intolerance of its professed advocates have erected so many walls of partition to exclude each other from the affectionate interchange of Christian love. And it is a fact upon which my eye now fastens, as the day-star of millennial glory, that the little strifes and jealousies which have prevailed among different denominations, to the distraction of the church are beginning to lose themselves in a growing attachment to the common cause.

It is our duty indeed to endeavor to reclaim the wandering from every species of error; but the boundary of our Christian charity must be nothing less than that sacred line which encircles the fundamental doctrines of the gospel. If we deliberately exclude from Christian fellowship those who hold the grand peculiarities of our faith we do it at the peril of rejecting those whom God has accepted!

But while I make all these concessions in favor of tolerance of minor differences far be it from me to leave an impression on your mind, that it were safe to receive to the hallowed embrace of Christian charity those who reject any of the fundamental truths of religion. With Christian forbearance in respect to doctrines that are not fundamental you must combine Christian decision with respect to those that are. Every Christian ought to shrink from any act which implies indifference to the great foundation of the gospel scheme as he would shrink from the guilt of betraying his Master with a kiss.

The only consistent course for those who build their hopes of Heaven upon the great truths of the Bible the only course which their own principles will justify is to take their stand by the cardinal doctrines of the gospel; and whoever may lift the standard of persecution, or whoever may chant the praises of tolerance to guard these truths with the most sacred vigilance!

But notwithstanding, you are to be decided in your treatment of fundamental error. You should be on your guard, even in respect to this against every approach to a bitter and censorious spirit. It is not this spirit which will recommend your religious views to others, or which can furnish to yourself any evidence of their correctness from their practical tendency. Besides, as I have already intimated, no person was ever reclaimed from error by being insulted or reproached but many have, by such a course, been steeled against conviction, and driven to the extreme of heresy.

The person whom you may not be able to treat as a Christian you may still treat with the kindness and courtesy of a friend. You may mingle with him in the kind offices and charities of life. You may cautiously avoid reproaching him with his errors. You may go, like an angel of mercy, to his sick bed. You may keep him constantly under the influence of your gentle and winning deportment. And who knows, but that in this way you may save a soul from death and hide a multitude of sins?

I will only detain you farther on this subject with one word relative to religious controversy. I do not care how much theological knowledge you acquire, and I will not say that circumstances may never occur, in which it may be proper for you to use it in defense of the truths of the gospel; but I beg that nothing may ever tempt you needlessly to enlist in any religious dispute!

When a woman takes up the weapons of theological warfare, unless at the imperative call of duty the native loveliness of female character is instantly eclipsed. The modest and retiring virtues which are the peculiar ornament of your gender can never find a place amidst the din and clashing of religious combatants.

It was my lot, not long ago, to encounter a sturdy female debater in a stagecoach; and I must confess that, after a little while, she succeeded in driving me effectually from the field; not because I was apprehensive of being crushed by the weight of her arguments but because, when I came to reflect, it cost me less mortification to yield to her the honor of an apparent triumph, than to keep the attitude which I had incautiously taken of discussing the most momentous of all subjects, in such circumstances, with a talking girl, whose element was controversy. I confidently trust that the time will never come, when the cause of truth will require the polemic influence of females.


I have dwelt thus minutely on the several points involved in the subject of this chapter, not from a conviction that they would all be of the same importance to you as they might be to a minister of the gospel but because I wish you, on every subject connected with practical life, to have some fixed principles, which will always be ready for application.