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Since the Clergy are appointed to main. tain a vigilant superintendence over the welfare of Society, so far as its moral or religious conduct is con. cerned in this life, and its eternal happiness in the next, a member of your order is impelled, by a holy and paramount duty, to direct your notice to a grow. ing evil, which seems calculated, without the strenuous opposition of the Clergy, to defeat the most important ends of their divine ordination.
The sanctity of the matrimonial contract has been violated, in many examples that have fallen under my observation, by the practice of abuses which call for the most severe reprobation, not only from those who are ministers of the gospel, but from all who know how to value the obligations of Religion and the dictates of morality.
Three or four churches are situated in the environs of the City of Bristol, (and perhaps it is the same in the vicinity of other large and populous towns,) where the banns of marriage are published, and the ceremony performed, without any inquiries as to the residence of the parties. The consequence has been, that morals are generally corrupted, by the facility with which inexperienced young persons can form a connexion with improper objects; and the comfort of private families is irreparably destroyed. From the opportunities which these churches afford, the following examples of flagitious conduct have occurred among the inhabitants of a small parish, at the distance of 12 miles from Bristol. In the course of a few months, one man was polluted by an incestuous commerce with his father's widow, and even succeeded in procuring the consecration of his infamy, from an unsuspecting clergyman. Another unnaturally espoused his wife's daughter; and a woman, who quitted the side of her sleeping husband, after robbing him of his property, was enabled to aggravate her crime by marrying his servant. Other instances, of a similar description, might readily be ascertained. It appears, from the marriage register books, that in parishes where the average of weddings used to be from 10 to 20, they do not now exceed two. -. Besides, the secrecy with which real marriages may bé contracted, draws a veil over the guilt of many persons, who cohabit as man and wife, without submit. ting to the ceremony. These couples are often unsuspected by their neighbours, who are well aware that many weddings take place without the publicity of banns, and have no reason to conclude otherwise in the instances alluded to.
Merely to state these enormities is to excite the desire of removing them. They who, by a culpable negligence, would tolerate the commission of such acts, when pointed out; or who under any circumstances, could regard them with indifference; might in a moral point of view, be responsible in the sight of their Creator. I cannot allow myself to doubt, that your indignation will be roused, at the perusal of these deplorable facts:- that you will cordially join to promote every plan for resisting the incursions of Vice, and preventing her future ravages. It might be needless to expatiate on the long train of evils which the most casual observer must foresee ; unless it were incumbent on me, as the organ of the clergy on this occasion, to submit a few observations on a subject so nearly connected with their office.
The institution of matrimony should be sedulously guarded from profanation by every well-regulated Government. The marriage sacrament should not be considered by youth, merely as the license for gratifying a transient passion, hastily kindled and not less quickly extinguished. It was meant to be administer. ed for nobler ends. It should be held forth to the parties as a solemn engagement, mutually to cheer and strengthen each other in the path of moral and domestic duty. The man who enters into it, thereby confirms the ties which already united him to his country, as one of her citizens; and has stronger motives than before for seeking to advance her prosperity. He has given a pledge for the observance of religion, morality, allegiance, and social order. How necessary then must it be, that he should approach the altar with a spirit refined from the influence of vice, or the taint of worldly depravity! The deluded indivi. dual will himself, at no distant time, bewail the effects of his rashness. He will find that the ardor of juve. nile passion quickly palls on the sense that the roses of Pleasure will fade and “mock him with their bareness." Misery, despair, and the corrosions of Remorse, await that infatuated wretch, who links himself to corruption.
These apprehensions are more than verified, in the example of younger branches of families, who become a prey to fraud or seduction, at a critical period of life; and are betrayed, from a heedless impulse, into degrading and unequal matches. I have not to learn that all are equal before our Redeemer; nor should I be urged to submit these considerations, if disparity of rank were the only cause of complaint. But experience teaches us, that in the majority of such cases, artificial and interested means are employed, to stimulate in the breasts of ingenuous youth the seeds of those passions, which inevitably bring their own punishment, if uncontrolled by reason. In devoting our thoughts to the means of preventing these nefarious practices, we do but fulfil a duty towards the subjects of our anxiety, which themselves may be willing, in the course of a few years, to acknowledge with gratitude. There are not many objects more deserving of compassion than those young persons, who have rashly united themselves to a depraved, an ignorant, or a designing partner. Behold them on the
threshold of life, eager to take their part in its pur. suits, while , every pleasing association of hope and fancy invites them to the prospect of futurity! Behold them again, when somewhat advanced on their course, -exposed to the gripe of Want,-harassed by the claims of a rising family, and subjected to a cheerless' round of unrequited cares,—their feelings lacerated by contention, and chained to their misery with bonds that Death only can dissolve! When reduced to this complication of wretchedness, will they not curse the fallacious opportunity that once they fondly grasped—which yielded them up as victims to the indulgence of their passions, before they were aware of its result? Will they not arraign us at the tribunal of Heaven for supineness to our charge nay, will they not have cause to do so,--unless we should now interfere to check the further progress of these flagrant abuses, and to vindicate the integrity of our awful trust, as the guardians of public morals?
I do not wish to impute blame to the conduct of the clergy in large towns, who are in the habit of indiscriminately marrying any who may apply to them; for the trouble of making particular inquiries would, perhaps, be incompatible with their other avocations. The odium should rather fall on those persons, who avail themselves of the facilities, which they now find for contracting profligate or imprudent marriages. . But although the clergy may be exonerated from censure, it is not less necessary that a remedy should be applied to the abuse. The hardship is so much the greater, as a clergyman who marries persons under age, without consent of parents, or within the degrees