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Prefatory note.

In 1680, when the nation was under strong fears lest, with the help and favour of the Court, Popery should resume its old domination in Britain, the celebrated Stillingfleet, at that time Dean of St Paul’s, preached a sermon on the 2d of May before the Lord Mayor of London. It was published under the title, “On the Mischief of Separation.” His object was to prove the Nonconformists guilty of schism, on the ground that they admitted the Church of England to be a true church of Christ, and yet lived in a state of dissent and separation from it. His text was Phil. iii. 16.

Perhaps no sermon has ever given rise to a controversy in which a greater number of writers has appeared on both sides; and among these were names signally eminent for worth and learning. Besides the following pamphlet by Owen, Baxter published his “Answer to Dr Stillingfleet’s Charge of Separation,” in terms of vehement invective against the injustice with which he had treated Dissent. John Howe addressed to the offending Dean “A Letter written from the Country to a Person of Quality in the City,” protesting with all his characteristic mildness and candour, but most firmly, against the insinuations of Stillingfleet. Vincent Alsop also took the field, in a work brimful of wit and humour to the very title-page, “The Mischief of Impositions.” Mr Barret of Nottingham, in allusion to the “Irenicum,” written by Stillingfleet when rector of Sutton, to reconcile conflicting sects by proving that no form of church-government could plead divine authority in its favour, published, “The Rector of Sutton Committed with the Dean of St Paul’s,” etc. Besides these authors, to whom Stillingfleet replies in his “Unreasonableness of Separation,” Mr John Troughton of Bicester published “An Apology for the Nonconformists; showing their reasons both for their not conforming and for their preaching publicly, though forbidden by law: with an Answer to Dr Stillingfleet’s Sermon and his Defense of it, 1681.” An account of the work in which Stillingfleet replied to the first five of these antagonists will be found in a prefatory note to Owen’s answer to it, vol. xv. p. 183, of Owen’s works. But Stillingfleet had to encounter fresh attacks:— “More Work for the Dean,” by Mr Thomas Wall; Mr Barret’s second “Attempt to Vindicate the Principles of the Nonconformists, not only by Scripture, but by Dr Stillingfleet’s Rational Account;” the “Modest and Peaceable Inquiry,” by Mr Lob; Baxter’s “Second True Defence of the mere Nonconformists;” Humphrey’s “Answer to Dr Stillingfleet’s Book, as far as it concerned the Peaceable Design;” and “The Rational Defense of Nonconformity,” in 1689, by Mr Gilbert Rule.

To the rescue of the Dean from this host of opponents, there advanced, with his vizor down and name withheld, Dr Sherlock, in his “Discourse about Church Unity, being a Defence of Dr Stillingfleet’s ‘Unreasonableness of Separation,’ in answer to several late pamphlets, but principally to Dr Owen and Mr Baxter, 1681.” This work was followed up by “A Continuation and Vindication of the Defense of Dr Stillingfleet, in answer to Mr Baxter, Mr Lob, and others.” Mr Long of Exeter, wandering from the points in debate into most offensive personalities against Baxter, published “The Unreasonableness of Separation, the Second Part; or, a farther impartial account of the history, nature, and pleas, of the present separation from the Church of England, with special remarks on the life and actions of Richard Baxter, 1682.” Richard Hook, D.D., vicar of Halifax, was the author of the “Nonconformist Champion, his Challenge Accepted; or, an answer to Mr Baxter’s Petition for Peace, with remarks on his Holy Commonwealth, his Sermon to the House of Commons, his Nonconformist’s Plea, and his Answer to Dr Stillingfleet, 1682.” The famous Sir Roger L’Estrange could not refrain from taking part in this curious mêlée with all his coarse but clever wit, of which the title of his work is a specimen, “The Casuist Uncased, in a Dialogue betwixt Richard and Baxter, with a moderator between them for quietness’ sake.”

The sermon which embroiled so many able men in disputes that lasted for ten years may well excite curiosity; and yet it would be difficult to say why it should have roused such a storm of controversy, resounding over the breadth of a kingdom. It is calm and measured in its tone, and contains no reckless invective, no impeachment of motives, no envenomed intensity of language. Its strength lay in its calmness, and in the extreme plausibility with which the case of the Church of England is stated against Dissenters. That the latter should admit it to be a church of Christ, and yet hold themselves justified in their nonconformity; and that the common grounds of objection to the Established Church should refer to the terms on which men were admitted to office in it, and did not, as the Dean alleged, affect their admission to membership, were points which such a controversialist could handle most effectively for his own cause. That Nonconformists, who had suffered so much in resisting popish encroachment, should be exhibited as practically the friends of Popery in opposing the Church of England, reputed to be the chief defence against it; while they, on the other hand, had been warning the nation for years against the vantage-ground which Popery had in the constitution and rites of the English Church; and that all this should have been done, not in the vulgar abuse which refutes itself, but in downright and deliberate logic, was sufficiently galling, and fitted to bring upon them no small odium from the temper of the nation, roused at the time by the fear of popish aggression and ascendency. It was, in truth, an attempt not merely to spike the best guns of Dissent, but to turn them against itself.

This “Vindication” by Owen in reply is all that could be wished, in strength of reasoning, civility of language, and crushing effect. There is a passage of eloquent pathos at the close, in allusion to the long sufferings of the Nonconformists. — Ed.

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