To A. F., Esq;
I was much surprised, Sir, when (some time ago) you so importunately desired my thoughts upon these questions,
I. Is there really any such thing as natural religion, properly and truly so called?
II. If there is, what is it?
III. How may a man qualify himself, so as to be able to judge, for himself, of the other religions profest in the world; to settle his own opinions in disputable matters; and then to enjoy tranquility of mind, neither disturbing others, nor being disturbed at what passes among them?
With what view you did this, whether in expectation of some little degree of satisfaction; or merely to try my abilities; or (which I rather think) out of kindness to amuse me at a time, when I wanted something to divert melancholy reflexions, I shall not venture to guess. I shall only say, that could I have foreseen in due ime, that such a task was to be imposed upon me, I might have been better prepared for it. I might have marked what was suitable to my purpose in those books, which I have red, but shall scarce ever return to read any more: many more I might have red too, which, not wanting them for my own conviction, I have neglected, and now have neither leisure nor patience to peruse: I might have noted what the various occurrences and cases, that happen in life, suggested: and, in general, I might have placed more of my time on such parts of learning, as would have been directly serviceable to me on the present occasion.
However, as I have not spent my days without thinking and reflecting seriously within my self upon the articles and duties of natural religion, and they are my thoughts which you require, I have attempted, by recollecting old meditations, and consulting a few scattered papers, in which I had formerly for my own use set down some of them (briefly, and almost solecistically), to give an answer to the two first of your questions, together: tho I must own, not without trouble in adjusting and compacting loose sentiments, filling up vacuities, and bringing the chaos into the shape of something like a system.
Notwithstanding what I have said, in a treatise of natural religion, a subject so beaten and exhausted in all its parts, by all degrees of writers, in which so many notions will inevitably occur that are no one’s property, and so many things require to be proved, which can scarce be proved by any other but the old arguments (or not so well), you must not expect to find much that is new. Yet something perhaps you may. That, which is advanced in the following papers, concerning the nature of moral good and evil, and is the prevailing thought that runs thro them all, I never met with any where. And even as to those matters, in which I have been prevented by others, and which perhaps may be common, you have them, not as I took them from any body, but as they used to appear to me in my walks and solitudes. So that they are indeed my thoughts, such as have been long mine, which I send you; without any regard to what others have, or have not said: as I persuade my self you will easily perceive. It is not hard to discern, whether a work of this kind be all of a piece; and to distinguish the genuine hand of an author from the false wares and patch-work of a plagiary. Tho after all, it would be madness in a man to go out of his right way, only because it has been frequented by others, or perhaps in the high road.
Sensible how unfinished this performance is, I call it only a Delineation, or rude draught. Where I am defective, or trip, I hope you will excuse a friend, who has now passed the threshold of old age; and is, upon that and other accounts, not able to bear much study or application. And thus I commit to your candor what follows: which, for the sake of order and perspecuity, I have divided into sections, and propositions.