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I do not know that any one has denied that a miracle would be credible, if exhibited to our senses. A man might, indeed, be deceived by an illusion arising from some disorder in his senses; but if he was conscious of being in a sound state of body and mind, and should witness not only one, but a variety of miracles; not only a few times, but for years, in succession; and, if he should find, that all around him had the same perceptions of these facts as himself, I need not say, that it would be reasonable to credit his senses, for the constitution of his nature would leave him no choice: he would be under the necessity of believing, what he saw with his eyes, heard with ears, and handled with his hands. But are there facts which a man would credit on the evidence of his senses, which can, by no means, be rendered credible by the testimony of any number of witnesses? Then there might be facts, the knowledge of which could never be so communicated as to be worthy of credit. According to this hypothesis, the constitution of our nature would require us to withhold our assent from what was true, and from what others knew to be true. If a thousand persons of the strictest veracity should testify, that they had repeatedly witnessed a miracle, and if all circumstances should concur to corroborate their testimony, yet upon this principle 75it would be unreasonable to credit them; even if they should consent to die in confirmation of what they declared to be the fact. This is the ground taken by Mr. Hume, in his boasted argument against miracles. But, it appears to me, that every man, previously to examination, must be convinced that it is false; for it is contrary to common sense, and universal experience of the effect of testimony. The true principle on this subject, is, that any fact which would be believed on the evidence of the senses, may be reasonably believed on testimony. For there may be testimony of such a nature, as to produce conviction as strong as any other conceivable evidence; and such testimony in favor of a miracle, would establish it as firmly as if we had witnessed it ourselves. But, notwithstanding this is the conclusion of common sense and experience, the metaphysical argument of Mr. Hume has had the effect of perplexing and unsettling the minds of many: and as he boasts, that “it will be useful to overthrow-miracles as long as the world endures,” it seems necessary to enter into an examination of his argument, that we may be able to expose its fallacy. This has already been done, in a convincing manner, by several men,55   Dr. Campbell, Prof. Vince, Mr. Adam, Dr. Douglas. eminent for their learning and discrimination: and if their works were read by all who peruse Hume, I should think it unnecessary to add a single word on the subject. But it may not be without use, to present a refutation, in a condensed form, for the sake of those who will not take the trouble to go through a minute and extended demonstration.

The argument of Mr. Hume will be best exhibited in his own words. “A miracle,” says he, “supported 76by any human testimony, is more properly a subject of derision, than of argument. No testimony for any kind of miracle can ever possibly amount to a probability.”—“We establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force, as to prove a miracle, and make a just foundation for any system of religion.”—“Our belief or assurance of any fact from the report of eye witnesses, is derived from no other principle, than experience; that is, our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses. Now, if the fact attested partakes of the marvellous, if it is such as has seldom fallen under our own observation; here is a contest of two opposite experiences, of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes. Further, if the fact affirmed by the witness, instead of being only marvellous, is really miraculous; if, besides, the testimony considered apart, and in itself, amounts to an entire proof; in that case there is proof against proof; of which the strongest must prevail. A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle from the very nature of the fact is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. And if so, it is an undeniable consequence, that it cannot be surmounted by any proof whatever from testimony. A miracle, therefore, however attested, can never be rendered credible, even in the lowest degree.”

Here we have the substance of Mr. Hume’s argument, on which I propose to make some remarks, intended to show that its whole plausibility depends on the assumption of false principles and the artful use of equivocal terms.


1. Some prejudice is created in the mind of the Unsuspecting reader, by the definition of a miracle here given. It is called “a violation of the laws of nature,” which carries with it an unfavorable idea, as though some obligation was violated, and some injury was done. But the simple truth is, that the laws of nature are nothing else than the common operations of divine power, in the government of the world, which depend entirely, for their existence and continuance, on the divine will; and a miracle is nothing else, than the exertion of the same power in a way different from that which is common; or, it may be a mere suspension of that power, which is commonly observed to operate in the world.

2. Mr. Hume’s argument will apply to the evidence of the senses as well as to that derived from testimony, and will prove (if it prove any thing) that it would be impossible to believe in a miracle, if we should witness it ever so often. “The very same principle of experience,” says he, “which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact which they endeavor to establish, from which contradiction there arises necessarily a counterpoise, and mutual destruction of belief and authority.” The very same counterpoise and mutual destruction of belief, must also occur between the assurance derived from the senses, and that derived from experience. The reason why testimony cannot be believed in favor of a miracle, is not, according to Mr. Hume, because it has no force; for taken by itself, it may be sufficient to produce assurance; but let this assurance be as strong as it may, it cannot be stronger than that derived from universal experience. “In that case,” says he—“there 78is proof against proof.” Now, it is evident, that upon these principles, the same equilibrium from contradictory evidence, must take place, between experience and the senses. If one evidence be stronger than another, “the stronger must prevail, but with a diminution of force in proportion to that of its antagonist.” But in the case of the senses, and a firm and unalterable experience, the evidence is perfect on both sides, so that the “counterpoise and mutual destruction of belief,” must occur. According to this metaphysical balance of Mr. Hume, a miracle could not be believed if we witnessed it ever so often; for although there is a great weight of evidence on each side, yet as there is an equilibrium, neither can have any influence on our assent. Whether Mr. Hume would have objected to this conclusion, does not appear; but it is manifest, that it logically follows from his argument, as much as in the case to. which he has applied it. And here we see to what a pitch of skepticism his reasoning leads.

3. Mr. Hume makes an unnecessary distinction between that which is marvellous, and that which is miraculous; for although there is a real difference, yet as to his argument, there is none. The force of his reasoning does not relate to events as being miraculous, but as being opposite to universal experience. If the conclusion, therefore, be correct, it will equally prove, that no testimony is sufficient to establish a natural event, which has not before been experienced. If ever so many witnesses should aver, that they had seen meteoric stones fall from the clouds, or the galvanic fluid melt metals, yet if we have never experienced these things ourselves, we must not believe them.

4. The opposite or contrary experience of Mr. 79Hume, in regard to miracles, can mean nothing more, than that such things have not been experienced. There is no other opposite experience conceivable, in this case, unless a number of persons present, at the same time, should experience opposite impressions. The distinction which he artfully makes, in relation to “the king of Siam, who refused to believe the first reports concerning the effects of frost,” between that which is contrary to experience, and not conformable to experience, is without foundation. For a fact cannot be contrary to experience in any other way, than by being not conformable to it. There neither is, nor can be, any experience against miracles, except this, that they have not occurred in our own experience or that of others. When the proposition of our author is expressed in language free from ambiguity, it will amount to this, that what has never been experienced, can never be believed on any testimony; than which nothing can easily be conceived more false. In what a situation must man have been, at the beginning of the world, if he had adopted the principles of this skeptic.

5. Mr. Hume uses the word experience in a twofold sense, changing from one to the other, as best suits his purpose. Sometimes it means, personal experience, and at other times, and more commonly, the experience of the whole world. Now, if it be taken to mean our own individual experience, the argument will be, that no fact which we ourselves have not witnessed, can be established by testimony; which, if correct, would cut off, at a stroke, the greater part of human knowledge. Much the most numerous class of facts are those which we receive upon the testimony of others, and many of these are entirely different 80from any thing that we have personally experienced. Many learned men never take the trouble to witness the most curious experiments in philosophy, and chemistry; yet they are as well satisfied of their truth, as if they had personal experience of it.

But although an argument founded on an opposition between testimony and experience, in order to be of any validity, must relate to personal experience; yet, Mr. Hume commonly uses the term to signify the experience of all men in all ages. This extensive meaning of the term must be the one which be affixes to it in most places of his essay; because, it is an experience by which we know that the laws of nature are uniform and unalterable; and he has given an example which clearly determines the sense of the word,. “That a dead man should come to life,” says he, “has never been witnessed in any age or country.” Now, according to this use of the word, what he calls an argument, is a mere assumption of the point in dispute; what logicians call, a petitio principii;—a begging of the question. For, what is the question in. debate? is it not whether miracles have ever been experienced? And how does Mr. Hume undertake to prove that they never did exist? By an argument intended to demonstrate that no testimony can establish them; the main principle of which argument is, that all experience is against them. if miracles have ever occurred, they are not contrary to universal experience; for whatever has been witnessed at any time, by any person, makes part of universal experience. What sort of reasoning is it, then, to form an argument against the truth of miracles, founded on the assumption, that they never existed? if it be true, as he says, “That it has never been witnessed, in any age or 81country, that a dead man should come to life,” then, indeed, it is useless to adduce testimony to prove, that the dead have, on some occasions, been brought to life. If he had a right to take this for granted, where was the use of such a parade of reasoning on the subject of testimony? The very conclusion to which he wished to come, is here assumed, as the main principle in the argument. It is, however, as easy to deny as to affirm; and we do utterly deny the truth of this position; so, that after all, we are at issue, precisely on the point, where we commenced. Nothing is proved by the argument which promised so much, except the skill of the writer in sophistical reasoning.

6. Our author falls into another mistake in his reasoning. The object is to prove, that testimony in favor of miracles, can never produce conviction, because it is opposed by uniform and unalterable experience. But how do we know what this universal experience is? Is it not by testimony, except within the narrow circle of our own personal experience? Then it turns out, that the testimony in favor of miracles is neutralized or overbalanced, by other testimony. That is, to destroy the force of testimony, he assumes a principle founded on testimony. It is admitted, that when testimony is adduced to establish any facts, if other and stronger testimony can be brought against them, their credibility is destroyed. But. if I bring testimony for a fact, and some One alleges that he can show that this testimony is unworthy of credit, because he can bring witnesses to prove that many persons in different countries and ages never saw any such thing; to such a person I would reply, that even if these witnesses declared the truth, it could not overthrow the positive testimony which I had adduced, as they did not contradict the 82facts asserted; and, besides, it must be determined, which witnesses are the most credible, yours or mine. Just so it is in the case of Mr. Hume’s argument. He sets up uniform experience against testimony, and gives a preponderance to the former, on the ground, that witnesses are known sometimes to lie; but all that he knows of what has happened in other ages-and countries, is by testimony; and they who give this testimony are as fallible as others; therefore, there existed no ground for prefering the evidence of experience, to testimony. Besides, he is not in possession of testimony to establish a thousandth part of what has been experienced; and as far as it goes, it amounts to no more than non-experience; a mere negative thing, which can never have any weight to overthrow the testimony of positive witnesses. In a court of justice, such a method of rebutting testimony, would be rejected as totally inadmissible. If we had sufficient evidence of a fact of any kind, that testimony would not be invalidated, if it could be proved, that no person in the world had ever witnessed the like before. This want of previous experience naturally creates a presumption against the fact, which requires some force of evidence to overcome: but in all cases, a sufficient number of witnesses, of undoubted intelligence and veracity, will be able to remove the presumption, and produce conviction.

7. Mr. Hume lays it down as a principle, that our belief in testimony arises from “experience; that is, observation of the veracity of human testimony.” But this is not correct. Our belief in testimony is as natural and constitutional, as our belief in our senses. Children, at first, believe implicitly all that is told them: and it is from experience that they learn to distrust 83testimony. If our faith in testimony arose from experience, it would be impossible to acquire any knowledge from instruction. If children were to believe nothing that was told them, until they had made observations on the veracity of human testimony, nothing would ever be believed; for they would never arrive at the maturity and judgment necessary to make observations on a subject so complicated.

But although, I perceive, Mr. Hume’s object in wishing to establish this false principle, was, to exalt the evidence of what he calls experience, above testimony; yet, I think, if we should concede it to him, it could answer him no purpose, since we have shown, that this experience itself, depends on testimony. Whatever use he can make, of this principle, therefore, against testimony, can be turned against himself, since his knowledge of what the experience of the world is, can only be obtained by the report of witnesses, who, in different ages, have observed the course of nature.

8. Mr. Hume, on reflection, seems to have been convinced, that his argument was unsound; for in a note, appended to his Essay on Miracles, he makes a concession, which entirely overthrows the whole. But mark the disingenuity, or shall I not rather call it, the malignity of the man, against religion, which is manifested in this only evidence of his candor. He concedes that there may be miracles of such a kind, as to admit of proof from human testimony, in direct contradiction to his reiterated maxim, and in complete repugnance to all his reasoning; but. he makes the concession with the express reservation, that it shall not be applied to the support of religion. He, however, not only makes this concession, but gives an example of such miracles, and of the testimony which he admits to be sufficient 84 to establish it. “Suppose,” says he, “all authors in all languages agree, that from the first of January, 1600, there was a total darkness all over the earth for eight days; suppose that the tradition of this event is still strong and lively among the people; that all travellers bring us accounts of the same tradition, &c.—IT IS EVIDENT THAT OUR PHILOSOPHERS OUGHT TO RECEIVE IT FOR CERTAIN.” And this is a part of the same Essay, in which it is said, “That a miracle, supported by any human testimony, is more properly a subject of derision than argument.” “No kind of testimony for any kind of miracle can possibly amount to a probability, much less to a proof.”

It might appear, that after so complete a renunciation of the principle which at first he so strenuously asserted, we might have spared ourselves the pains of a formal refutation. But not so. The author is resolved, that his concession shall be of no service, whatever, to religion. Hear his own words: “But should this miracle be ascribed to any new system of religion; men in all ages have been so imposed upon by ridiculous stories of that kind, that this very circumstance would be full proof of a cheat, and sufficient with all men of sense, not only to make them reject the fact, but even reject it, without further examination.” I have heard of a maxim, which, I believe, the Jesuits introduced, that, that might be true in philosophy, which was false in theology; but I never could have expected that a philosopher, a logician, and a metaphysician too, would utter any thing so unreasonable, and so marked with prejudice, as the declaration just quoted. The fact was admitted to have such evidence, that. even philosophers ought to receive it as certain. But not if it is ascribed 85to a new religion. On this subject no evidence is sufficient. It is perfectly unexceptionable in philosophy; but in religion a sensible man will reject it, whatever it may be; even without further examination. The. circumstance of its being a miracle connected with religion, is sufficient, in his opinion, to prove it a cheat, however complete the testimony. The world, it seems, has been so imposed on by ridiculous stories of this kind, that we must not even listen to any testimony in favor of religious miracles. This author would, indeed, reduce the advocates of religion to an awkward dilemma. They are called upon to produce evidence for their religion, but if they adduce it, sensible men will not notice it; even if it is good every where else, it must go for nothing in religion. Upon these principles, we might indeed give up the contest; but we are not willing to admit that this is sound logic, or good sense. The reason assigned for proscribing, in this summary way, all the testimony in favor of religion, will apply to other subjects. Men have been imposed on by ridiculous stories in philosophy, as well as in religion; but when evidence is proposed, shall we not even examine it, because there have been impositions? This is the very reason why we should examine with care, that we may distinguish between the true and the false.

If it were true, that miracles had often been ascribed to new religions, it would not prove that there never were any true miracles, but rather the contrary; just as the abounding of counterfeit money is evidence that there is some genuine; for that which has no existence is not counterfeited. But the clamor that has been raised by infidels about new religions being commonly founded on miracles, or the pretence of miracles, has very little foundation in fact. Besides the Jewish and 86Christian religions, (which are indeed parts of the same,) it would, I believe, be difficult to designate any other, which claims such an origin.

After all that has been said of the false maxims of the Jesuits, I doubt whether any one could be selected so perfectly at war with reason, as this of the Scotch philosopher: nay, I think, I may challenge all the enemies of revelation, to cull from any Christian writer, a sentence, so surcharged with prejudice.

But, to do justice to Mr. Hume—although he seems to have closed the door against all discussion, on our part—yet, in one of his general maxims, he leaves us one alternative. The maxim is this, “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless it be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact.” An ingenious writer66   Dr. Gleig. has undertaken to meet Mr. Hume on his own ground; and has endeavored to prove, that the testimony of the apostles and early Christians, if the facts reported by them were true, is a greater miracle than any which they have recorded. But the maxim, as stated by Mr. Hume, is not correct. With the change of a single word, perhaps, it may be adopted, and will place the question on its proper ground. The change which I propose, is to substitute the word improbable, for miraculous. And it will then read, No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be. more improbable, than the fact which it endeavors to establish. The ground of objection to the word miraculous, is, that it involves a false principle, which is, that facts are incredible in proportion as they are 87miraculous; which principle, he, in several places avows, and which is, indeed, a cardinal point in his system of evidence. But it is not true. There are many cases which might be proposed, in which, of two events, one of which must be true, that which is miraculous is more probable than the one which is merely natural. I will mention only one at present. Man was either immediately created by God, or he proceeded from some natural cause. Need I ask, which of these is most probable? and yet the first is miraculous; the second not. The plain truth is, that in all cases, the fact which has most evidence is most probable, whether it be miraculous or natural. And when all evidence, relating to a proposition, is before the mind, THAT IS TRUE, WHICH IS EASIEST TO BE BELIEVED; because it is easier to believe with evidence, than against it.

We are willing, therefore, that this maxim, as now stated, should be the ground of our decision, and we pledge ourselves to prove, that, the falsehood of the miracles of the Gospel, would be more improbable, and consequently more incredible, than the truth of the facts recorded in them. But this discussion will be reserved for another place. To conclude; since, it has been shown, that there is no antecedent presumption against miracles from the nature of God, or from the laws by which he governs the universe;—since, a miraculous fact is not more difficult to be accomplished by omnipotence, than any other;—since, miracles are no further improbable, than as they are unusual;—since, they are the most suitable and decisive evidences which can be given of a revelation;—since, even by the concession of Mr. Hume himself, there may be sufficient testimony fully to establish them:—and, since, the many 88false pretences to miracles, and the general disposition to credit them, are rather proofs that they have existed, than the contrary; we may safely conclude, that Mr. Hume’s argument, on this subject, is sophistical and delusive; and that it is so far from being true, as he alleges, that they are incredible, whatever may be their evidence, when brought to support religion, that this is, of all others, that department, in which they are most reasonable and credible.

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