The Need For Forms In Religion
by Joseph Butler From A Charge delivered to the Clergy of Durham (2nd edition, 1786).

NOR does the want of Religion, in the generality of the common people, appear owing to a speculative disbelief, or denial of it, but chiefly to thoughtlessness and the common temptations of life. Your chief business therefore is to endeavour to beget a Practical Sense of it upon their hearts, as what they acknowledge their belief of, and profess they ought to conform themselves to. And this is to be done, by keeping up, as well as we are able, the Form and Face of Religion with decency and reverence, and in such a degree as to bring the thoughts of Religion often to their minds; and then endeavouring to make this Form more and more subservient to promote the Reality and Power of it. The Form of Religion may indeed be where there is little of the Thing itself; but the Thing itself cannot be preserved amongst mankind without the Form. And this Form frequently occurring in some instance or other of it, will be a frequent admonition to bad men to repent, and to good men to grow better; and also be the means of their doing so.

That which men have accounted Religion in the several countries of the world, generally speaking, has had a great and conspicuous part in all Public Appearances, and the face of it been kept up with great reverence throughout all ranks, from the highest to the lowest; not only upon occasional solemnities, but also in the daily course of behaviour. In the Heathen world, their Superstition was the chief subject of statuary, sculpture, painting, and poetry. It mixt itself with business, civil forms, diversions, domestic entertainments, and every part of common life. The Mahometans are obliged to short devotions five times between morning and evening. In Roman-Catholic countries, people cannot pass a day without having Religion recalled to their thoughts, by some or other memorial of it; by some ceremony or public religious form occurring in their way: Besides their frequent holidays, the short prayers they are daily called to, and the occasional devotions enjoined by Confessors. By these means their Superstition sinks deep into the minds of the people, and their Religion also into the minds of such among them as are serious and well-disposed. Our Reformers, considering that some of these observances were in themselves wrong and superstitious, and others of them made subservient to the purposes of Superstition, abolished them, reduced the Form of Religion to great simplicity, and enjoined no more particular rules, nor left anything more of what was External in Religion than was, in a manner, necessary to preserve a sense of Religion itself upon the minds of the people. But a great part of this is neglected by the generality amongst us; for instance, the Service of the Church, not only upon common days, but also upon Saints days; and several other things might be mentioned. Thus they have no customary admonition, no publick call to recollect the thoughts of God and Religion from one Sunday to another.

It was far otherwise under the Law.

"These words," says Moses to the children of Israel, "which 1 command thee, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up".

And as they were commanded this, so 'tis obvious how much the Constitution of that Law was adapted to effect it, and keep Religion ever in view. And without somewhat of this nature, Piety will grow languid even among the better sort of men; and the worst will go on quietly in an abandoned course, with fewer interruptions from within than they would have, were religious reflections forced oftener upon their minds, and consequently with less probability of their amendment. Indeed, in most ages of the Church, the care of reasonable men has been, as there has been for the most part occasion, to draw the people off from laying too great weight upon external things; upon formal acts of piety. But the state of matters is quite changed now with us. These things are neglected to a degree, which is, and cannot but be attended with a decay of all that is good. 'Tis highly seasonable Now to instruct the People in the Importance of External Religion.