Dr. Johnson, during his tour to the Hebrides, met with a person who like many in the present day was vehemently opposed to creeds and confessions of faith. His principal objection to them was that they are inconsistent with mental freedom. The human mind, he said, is confined by them, and they ought not to be imposed upon it. To this the hard head and robust common- sense of Johnson made answer, that what the objector called imposition is only a voluntary declaration of agreement in certain articles of faith which a church has a right to require, just as any other society can insist upon certain rules being observed by its members. Nobody is compelled to belong to the church, as nobody is compelled to enter a society. This, however, did not satisfy the pertinacious opponent of creeds; and he continued his objections in the same general strain as before. Johnson then silenced him with the remark: "Sir, you are a bigot to laxness."
Bigotry is a blind and unreasonable devotion to an opinion. It may be found in the ranks of infidelity as frequently as in those of politics or religion. The political and especially the theological bigot has had a full share of attention and criticism. The latitudinarian bigot is a species that has been somewhat overlooked, and taking the text we have quoted from Dr. Johnson, we propose to preach a short sermon upon the subject of Liberal Bigotry. Our first remark is, that the liberal thinker, as he styles himself, is a bigot in finding fault with a religious denomination to which he does not be long, for making an honest and manly statement of what it believes. The zeal with which he at tacks a society with which he is not identified, because it holds certain tenets as the condition of membership, is certainly both blind and unreasonable. By what right does he complain of a body of his fellow-men because, in the exercise of their own judgment, they have come to the conclusion that the creed of Calvin or the creed of Arminius is the truth, and that the doctrine of Socinus or of Swedenborg is error? What reason is there in demanding of a large society that they surrender their convictions respecting such subjects as the trinity, the incarnation, the apostasy, and the redemption, and take in lieu of them the opinions of an individual who styles himself a liberal thinker? There might be some reason in this objecting to distinct statements of religious truth, if the objector were himself concerned in the origin and formation of the society adopting them. If it were still an open question, and the disputant were entitled to a voice, then his zeal against creeds would not necessarily be bigoted. But the churches are already in existence. Neither the latitudinarian nor the downright sceptic had anything to do with their origin or constitution, and they have no more part or lot in them than an American democrat has in the monarchy of England. It is the height of bigotry, therefore, when the unbeliever represents the terms of communion which religious denominations have established not for him, but for themselves, as being bigoted and intolerant.
Our second remark is, that the bigot to laxness is himself an inquisitor, and a foe to freely-formed opinion. He is uneasy upon seeing that others have fixed and settled views, and attempts to unsettle them by attacks upon all definite statements of doctrine. Why is he not content with the liberty which he himself enjoys of adopting no particular sentiments, and of maintaining, like the ancient sophists, that there is no absolute truth, and that one thing is just as valid as another? He is allowed his own dislike and rejection of a creed, why should he disallow another man's liking for and adoption of a creed? His complaint over the freely-formed conviction of his fellow-men that the evangelical system is the truth of God, is in reality a protest against their right of private judgment, and a demand that they adopt his opinions upon this point. But this is bigotry. If he would be content with his criticism and attack upon a particular creed, no fault would be found with him. But when, after the criticism and attack, he pronounces the advocate of the creed to be a bigot because he still remains unconvinced by his reasonings and still retains his belief, he passes the line of free and fair discussion, and enters the province of intolerance and bigotry. He does not meet with this treatment from the defender of the faith once delivered to the saints. The charge of bigotry is not often made by the orthodox against the heterodox, but always by the heterodox against the orthodox. Perhaps we are the first since Dr. Johnson to direct attention to the bigotry of laxness. And we do not charge bigotry upon the latitudinarian merely because he attacks the evangelical creed, but because he calls those bigots who are not converted by his arguments.
It is curious to notice how extremes meet. The latitudinarian will be found to be narrow, when he comes to be examined; and the dogmatist will be found to be liberal, when his real position is seen. The former is restless and uneasy upon discovering that his fellow -men in large masses are holding fixed opinions, and are ready to live and die by them. He complains and quarrels with them for so doing. The latter is calm and self-possessed, being satisfied with his freely- formed convictions and his self-consistent creed, and while he does his best to convert to his own views those whom he regards as being in error, yet if he finds himself to be unsuccessful, he enters no querulous complaint and indulges in no bitter intolerance, because he commits all judgment to God and the final day.
The gentle and fair-minded Addison, in one of the Spectators (No. 185), directs attention to what he denominates infidel bigotry. "After having treated of these false zealots in religion, I cannot," he says, "forbear mentioning a monstrous species of men who one would not think had any existence in nature, were they not to be met with in ordinary conversation. I mean the zealots in atheism. Infidelity is propagated with as much fierceness and contention, wrath and indignation, as if the safety of mankind depended upon it. There is something so ridiculous and perverse in this kind of zealots, that one does not know how to set them out in their proper colors. They are a sort of gamesters who are eternally upon the fret, though they play for nothing. They are perpetually teasing their friends to come over to them, though at the same time they allow that neither of them shall get anything by the bargain. In short, the zeal of spreading atheism is, if possible, more absurd than atheism itself. I would fain ask one of these bigoted infidels: Supposing all the great points of atheism, such as the casual or eternal formation of the world, the materiality of a thinking substance, the mortality of the soul, the fortuitous organization of the body, the motions and gravitation of matter, and the like particulars, were laid together and formed into a kind of creed, according to the opinions of the most celebrated atheists, I ask, supposing such a creed as this were formed, and imposed upon any one people in the world, whether it would not require an infinitely greater measure of faith, than any set of articles which they so violently oppose. Let me therefore advise this generation of wranglers, for their own and for the public good, to act at least so consistently with themselves, as not to burn with zeal for irreligion, and with bigotry for nonsense."
The present attack upon the Calvinistic creed by the so-called "liberal" and "progressive" parties in Protestantism, is an example of the zeal of bigotry. The particular opponents of Calvinism of whom we are now speaking are not atheists. They are believers in a deity and the principles of morality, and some of them accept a vague form of evangelical doctrine. But the language of Johnson and Addison nevertheless applies to them. In respect to the five points of Calvinism, and the general type of doctrine contained in the Westminster standards, they are bigoted partisans. The zeal which they exhibit in opposition to this intellectual and powerful theology, is as unintelligent and passionate as anything to be found in any annals whatever. And what is worse, it is an unscrupulous zeal not seen among the orthodox. When did the orthodox ever stoop to the method of the "liberal" theologian? When did Calvinists ever attempt to sap and destroy "progressive" theology, by the plan recommended by some "progressive" theologians for sapping and destroying the Calvinistic faith: the plan of remaining in a denomination after changing one's belief, and trying to subvert the creed of the denomination? What Calvinists ever advised Calvinists publicly to subscribe an anti-Calvinistic creed, and then teach and defend Calvinism within an anti- Calvinistic denomination? What Calvinist ever advised Calvinists to hold office and take emoluments on anti-Calvinistic foundations? What orthodox body has ever put to its own use endowments that were given for the spread of "progressive " theology? The history of religious endowments shows without an exception, if we are not mistaken, that it is the looser creed that filches from the stricter, not the stricter from the looser. Whatever else may be laid to the charge of the advocates of orthodoxy, covert movements, concealed opinions, and double dealing cannot be. They have never burrowed underground; and they have never pretended to be what they are not. And they have insisted that all who join them shall do so in good faith, and hold a common creed. For this they are charged with narrowness and bigotry! The charge falls upon the other party.
– W.G.T. Shedd, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy