For my own part I find it difficult, not to yield a degree of respect to the humble and sincere faith even of a heathen; limited, as it probably is in almost all cases, to God, considered as the God of nature only. I recollect to have read in the Life of David Brainerd
an interesting account of a poor Indian, with whom he had become acquainted in the American wilderness, who seems to have had such a faith.
The account, which this man gave of himself to Brainerd, who was then a missionary among the Indians residing near the Forks of the Delaware, was to this effect, and nearly in these words. He had formerly been like the rest of his heathen brethren; that is to say, he had been in the same unbelief and the same sins, until about four or five years before. At that time becoming very much distressed at what he had witnessed in himself and in others, he sought a retired and solitary place in the woods, and lived there entirely alone for a number of months. Having confidence neither in himself nor in his fellow-men, he could look no where in his sorrows but to that great Spirit, of whom he had a rude and imperfect conception as the God of nature, as a God shining in the stars and speaking in the winds. At length, he said, God comforted his heart, and showed him what he should do; and since that time he had known God, and had tried to serve him; and he now loved all men, of whatever nation or people they might be, as he had never done before. He built a small house, which Brainerd speaks of having visited; and having adorned it with various images cut upon the several parts, he consecrated it to religious uses, and was in the habit of performing his devotional and religious acts in it. Brainerd says, that he was treated by this person with uncommon courtesy; and that he seemed to be entirely hearty and sincere in his manifestations of kindness. He speaks of him as being a devout and zealous reformer; and adds, that he was told by the Indians, that he opposed their drinking strong liquor with all his power; and that, if at any time he could not dissuade them from it by all he could say, he would leave them and go crying into the woods. He represents him as being apparently sincere, honest, and conscientious in his own way, and according to his own religious notions. He further remarks, that he was looked upon and derided among most of the Indians as a precise zealot, who made a needless noise about religious matters; “but I must say,” he adds, “that there was something in his temper and disposition, which looked more like true religion than any thing I ever observed among other heathens.”
The faith of this poor Indian existed under the most unfavorable circumstances, but it gave him power; power over himself; power against threatening vices among his own people; power, in solitary places, with no companions but the wild woods and waters, to hold communion, after the imperfect manner of heathenism, with the Great Spirit, who is the Father both of the Christian and the Gentile. Of the origin of the faith of this Indian reformer, of its relation to the Atonement, of its ultimate effects upon his own character and happiness, we do not now undertake to speak. These are subjects, which require much discretion and piety rightly to solve them; and perhaps they are most wisely and safely left with him, who, as the common Father of all men, has the final destiny of all men in his hands. But we cannot help saying with great confidence, that it can be no discredit to a person, however advanced he may be in civilization and human culture, to regard such faith, whatever may be the amount of its supposed or its acknowledged imperfections, with a degree of sympathy and respect.
Among nations, both ancient and modern, that with more or less of civilization have not been visited and blessed with the lights of Christianity, we discover other instances illustrative of the same general views. Persons have been found of high intellectual endowments and attainments, to whom human literature and honors could furnish no true solace of soul; especially in seasons of disappointment and adversity. They have felt, and felt deeply too, that nothing human could be a substitute for the divine; that faith in humanity, whatever value might attach to it, could never supply the place of faith in the Supreme Power. And those among them, who have had the courage and wisdom to look to that higher Power with what light they had, feeble though it might be, have never failed to find increased light and increased strength of purpose. I think it would be difficult to read the life and death of Socrates, illustrated as they are by the sublime commentary of his religious sentiments, without a strong conviction, that God does not desert those, who have faith in him, even according to the dim light of nature. Numa, the religious legislator and the priest of the people over whom he presided as King, was a wiser, a juster, and better man for his faith. Camillus, the distinguished leader and commander of the Romans, the preserver of the city and the state which Numa had endeavored to establish in religious sentiments, “diligentissimus religionum cultor,”
as he is described by the historians of his country, was a man of juster views and greater foresight, a man of greater energy and endurance, for his religious belief, for his confidence in the presiding Power of the universe, perplexed and imperfect as it undoubtedly was.
We repeat, therefore, it is no discredit and no error, to say, that we ought to respect the faith even of a heathen, especially when it has God for its object. Perhaps we may go further and say, that such faith, whenever and wherever found, has something in it, something in its own intrinsic nature, which may be said, not merely to deserve, but to command respect.
But if faith attaches value and honor to the character even of a heathen, to the Socrates of Athens, and to him, who, in his rude American hut, had the faith and the warning voice of Socrates without his knowledge and his moral and philosophical eloquence, then what limits shall we, or can we set to its value and to its renovating Power, when it rests upon the basis of God’s word added to the basis of nature! If God gives great strength to those few and scattered ones, even among the heathen, who are enabled to believe strongly in himself, how much greater resources, and how much greater strength must those have, who have faith in God, not only as the God of nature and of providence, but as the God of the Bible; who reveals himself not dimly as in the light of heathenism, but clearly in the light of revealed truth; not merely in the terrible attribute of his justice, but in justice mingled with and chastened by mercy; with his wonderful announcement of the way of salvation through the Atonement, and with all his gracious Promises applicable to every situation.
— The Life of Faith (1852) Part 1, Chapter 13.