It is necessary for me here to premise that both my parents were Presbyterians by inheritance and conviction, and I was brought up according to the straightest of the sect. In my eleventh year, however, I was sent to boarding school, and it was never my privilege to live at home again with my parents except in my school and professional vacations. As a consequence I suppose, of being thus thrown very much upon my own resources, I early in life fell or rose, I cannot say which, into the habit of judging for myself, according to my limited lights, of the logical and theological merits of what I heard from the pulpit and read in the Bible. I began quite early to discern what looked to me like inconsistencies and improbabilities in its pages. Their number multiplied with my growth, and all the faster from the fact that my spiritual guides, for the most part, failed to impress me as men of strong convictions, or as having a particular call to break the bread of life to hungering souls. Bad logic and sectarian sophisms in the pulpit have unquestionably a tendency to encourage a propensity to question the truth of everything that comes from the same fountain. They certainly had that effect upon me. Besides, young men always experience more or less satisfaction in detecting what they suppose to be the errors of those who aspire to be thought wiser or better than themselves. So, between vanity and honest doubt, I fear I had been spending more time in looking up what I considered inconsistencies in the Word than in searching for what might have been useful in forming my character and in directing my daily walk and conversation. With the light which the pulpit offered me in those days, I did not see how God could have loved His only-begotten Son less than the world, which was under His condemnation for its sins; nor how the wicked could be any better fitted for heaven by the death of anyone, and especially of an innocent person; nor how God could derive any satisfaction from the suffering of His innocent offspring; nor, if Christ's death was a satisfaction for the sins of the world, why any sinner, after His expiatory death, should suffer or be called to account for any sins subsequently committed, his redemption having been duly purchased and paid for; nor was it at all clear to me how Christ's death could be the infinite sacrifice it was represented to be, when He knew He was to rise again three days after His crucifixion and resume His seat on the right hand of the Father. I was accustomed from my earliest youth to repeat the prayer recommended by our Lord as a model to His disciples, in which the Father is asked to lead us not into temptation. When I came to read in James that "God cannot be tempted with evil, nor tempteth He any man," I was puzzled to comprehend the propriety of this invocation, which virtually reproached God with doing what James gives us to understand it would be sinful even to suspect Him of doing.
The Mosaic Cosmogony also bristled with difficulties. I tried in vain to reconcile the indisputable fact that the sun is the source of all light on our planet with the record in Genesis that the creation of light was the work of the first day of creation, vegetables of the third, while the sun, without which there obviously could have been neither light nor vegetation, was not created until the fourth day. And how could the days have mornings and evenings, as they are reported to have had, before the sun was created? And when I found the champions of the Bible pretending to have reconciled the 6,000-year-old theory of creation with the teaching of geology, by maintaining that the "days" of creation, as given by Moses, meant not a day of twenty-four hours, but an indefinite period of time - hundreds, thousands, millions of years - I not unnaturally inferred that they had taken refuge in a greater absurdity than the one they sought to avoid, for the seventh day on which "God rested from all his work which he had made," must have been as long as any of the days which preceded it.
This taste for hunting and running down what seemed to me incongruous, inconsistent or inconsequential passages of the letter of the Word grew by what it fed on, and it is mortifying and painful for me now to think how blind and stupid I was all this time, while flattering myself that I was profitably employed.
About 1842, and soon after my admission to the bar, circumstances threw me into more or less intimate relations with a lawyer who had won for himself considerable reputation as a barrister. He subsequently held one of the highest judicial positions in the state. He was twelve or fourteen years my senior; he took a fancy to me for reasons I do not yet quite understand; perhaps because I always had a rather uncommon capacity for tolerating the eccentricities of others, for we had very little in common. I respected his talents and manly character, I enjoyed his conversations, which though somewhat critical, not to say censorious, was always sparkling, and usually instructive, at least to one who was so much his junior. We had lodgings under the same roof and took our meals at the same hotels for many years. . . Before coming to New York to reside he had been captivated by the teachings, then novel, of Gall and Spurzheim, and had been one of several gentlemen who united in inviting Dr. Combe, of Edinburgh, to come to the United States to expound their new science. He adopted the views of this school of philosophers unreservedly, and by degrees he drifted so far toward fatalism as to deny moral accountability, rather than admit that a man's cranial developments, rather than his will, were not binding upon, or determinative of, his conduct and character. He had not been brought up by his parents to entertain any reverence for the Bible or respect for the Church or clergy, and when my acquaintance with him began, he was accustomed to speak of the sacred volume as the "razor strop" that being, according to his view, and the view of many of his early friends, the most useful purpose to which they had seen it applied. Though destitute of any particle of reverence for the Word, and though he rarely put his foot inside of a church, he was notably conscientious. The ethical side of his character was as fully developed on the natural plane as in any person I had then ever met. In judging men or conduct, he habitually looked to ethical though not spiritual conditions as the decisive ones. He was a fine, often an eloquent talker, and his spectroscopic methods of analyzing the motives of human conduct were new to me then, and in some respects extremely profitable. Unhappily, with them he did much to quicken into new life, suspicions that had been slowly germinating in my mind, that what I failed to comprehend in the Bible was a defect in it instead of in myself.
This suspicion gained upon me as time rolled on, though the devastation of the religious notions in which I had been trained was not rapid. I could not name any particular event, or any particular time, from which my faith in the Revealed Religion began consciously to weaken; nor when in my spiritual horizon the sun actually stood still upon Gibeon and the moon in the Valley of Ajalon. I drifted with a current, the force and direction of which never attracted my attention nor occupied my thoughts till I found myself approaching the open sea of disbelief.
At the time of my visit to St. Thomas I suppose I had pretty much ceased to regard the Bible as possessing any higher sanction than the writings of Marcus Aurelius or of Confucius, except that it taught a loftier and more comprehensive system of morals. Jesus of Nazareth I regarded as one of the best of men, if such a man ever existed, of which I was not at all clear; but the method of His incarnation, His miracles and resurrection, I sometimes doubted. I inclined to class them with the stories of Hercules and Theseus. I did not hesitate to ask myself, "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and of Juda, and Simon?" If I attended any church, it was usually . . . the Unitarian, where I repaired for literary rather than for spiritual refreshment.
The Old Testament I regarded, at least I thought I regarded, pretty much as Cobden once told me that he regarded it, as a book written for the Jews only, but not for us. I say I thought I so regarded it, but I have since doubted whether I really thought much about it; and whether these doubts of the divine origin of the Word were not mere surface indications, manifesting themselves during a period of rapid physical and mental growth, while the wiser lessons and training of my early youth were hibernating in the heart in a state of temporary torpidity; for even in those days I could never treat my Bible with neglect or disrespect, nor could I hear it spoken of in a profane way without an unpleasant sensation. Why I had this feeling or whence it came, I had then no suspicion, and, perhaps, if provoked to explain or defend it, like Peter I should have disowned it. I dare say that in this respect my experience is not uncommon. . . .
With all my critical difficulties I still found the Bible about the most interesting book in my library, nor had I any other book to which I so frequently turned for entertainment, even after I had ceased to turn to it for any better purpose. As Herod feared John, knowing that he was just and holy, and heard him gladly, so I must have feared the Word, knowing that it was just and so far holy, and, despite my Pyrronisme, I read it, though perhaps with only a pagan's interest.