On Christian Morals

I would like to take a moment and discuss the term “morality.” As used here, morals and morality have a secular definition. Morals are based on the advancement of knowledge, experience and time.

Modern Christian morals are at best nebulous, dependent on the church affiliation, the local politics and which section of the Bible is being used. Certainly the Torah has great scenes of violence and destruction against the non-believers. The story of Exodus demonstrates the anger of the Hebrew God against those who do not follow His will. The books of the Christian Bible are less violent, but still hold a ring of anger by God if the people did not follow His commands.

Few people speak to Christian morals referring to English physician Sir Thomas Browne’s posthumously published treatise of that title. The 1716 printing of Christian Morals, revised in 1756 by Samuel Johnson, consists of three parts.

To Browne, virtue was the basis of all “Christian morals”, though continued references are made to God and His mercy, Browne writes as many of his period, leaning towards the Greek philosophers for his proofs of virtue. He even goes so far to indicate that one virtue is to “join sense with reason and experiment with speculation.” To educate one’s self is a virtue of every good Christian of his time.

Browne is very aware of the opinions of others and warns the reader not to indulge in self-opinion without proofs or reasons. He writes,

“OPINION rides upon the neck of Reason, and Men are Happy, Wise, or Learned, according as that Empress shall set them down in the Register of Reputation. How ever weigh not thy self in the scales of thy own opinion, but Let the Judgment of the Judicious be the Standard of thy Merit.”

Christian Values

Keeping Browne’s position on education and self-opinion without reason in mind, it would appear that his proofs are not biblical in nature but of the ancient and rediscovered philosophies of Greece. To be virtuous, in Browne’s eyes, is to be god-like. In fact, most of his virtues are secular in nature. Honesty, avoidance of vice, do not become envious of others, right one’s wrongs, do not be a rumor monger and be gratuitous in your actions. He warns that fortune in itself is no divine, that one should be content with the little things. In fact, Browne’s treatise seems to convey the writing of every 20th and 21st century self-help book – Be honest, sincere and austere. Seek understanding of the self as well as others. Be considerate and do not assume.

Like Jefferson and many other writers of his time, it appears that Browne was more of a theist then practicing Christian of his era. He refers to “Providence” as he does God; he sees god-like actions in all that is and could be and that man is responsible for his own actions. “Whereas the Mercy of God hath singled out but few to be the signals of his Justice, leaving the generality of Mankind to the pedagogy of Example.”

There are few biblical references in Browne’s works. Most are simple examples of virtue, not where God tells us to be virtuous. This may be one reason why it is so hard for conservative-Christians (in faith, not politics) have such a hard time defining what Christian morals are.

(W)ho carry about them plain & down right dealing Minds, Humility, Mercy, Charity, & Virtues acceptable unto God & Man. But whatever success they may have as to Heaven, they are the acceptable Men on Earth, and happy is he who hath his quiver full of them for his Friends.

Christian values, in a modern sense, have little for definition. Reading Browne will give one a better sense of the Secular Humanistic values many of us hold today.


About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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