“Ethical Religion” by William Salter

Mohandas Gandhi acknowledged that reading William Salter’s Ethical Religion was an influence on his own developing thought.*  The book was created from a collection of addresses Salter gave in his early years as Leader (equivalent of a minister) at the Chicago Ethical Society, and was published in 1889.

The following excerpt is my slight update of Salter’s words, using more modern language where his dated words might distract from his message for many of today’s readers. The original can be found and downloaded for free at Google Books.

The moral nature is that by which we transcend ourselves and enter into an ideal region. Science, with its methods of observation and experimetn, is limited to the world as it is. Ethics is essentially the thought of what ought to be. It is not an account of human beings as they are, nor is it a transcript and summary abstract of the facts of society; it declares the law after which people should act, and in obedience to which society should be constituted. Ethics, in a word, holds up the picture of our ideal selves, and gives us back society transfigured. For humans have two sides to their nature, — one looking out on what is, the other on the better that might be. It is an honorable task to analyze the body and brain and mind of man; to explore conscientiously and classify systematically the facts of human society. But psychology and sociology do not take the place of ethics, nor even give it its indispensable foundation. In the strict sense of the word, science — the science of humanity as truly as any other — knows nothing of right and wrong, but only of what is; of facts, and the law of their connection.

The safety and sanity of life consist in keeping in mind the higher ends and laws of our existence. For a person is not only to know, but to do and to achieve. Strange, is it not, that people are not content with what they see; that they turn their backs on the known and familiar in search of something better; that they should stake their lives sometimes on a hope or dream of their minds? Yet this, too, belongs to humanity: it is the ideal ends of human life calling on them for accomplishment; and we, simple and loyal, do not fail to hear.

Ethical religion would turn people’s thoughts this way. It would inspire to a new confidence in ideas. It would be essentially a practical religion, — not practical and ideal, but practical because ideal…. Like an architect’s plan, an idea means nothin in itself: it proposes a new form of life, as the plan involves a new structure. For as the artist, whose soul images some form of the beautiful, seizes the brush or the chisel to portray it; as the thinker’s burning thoughts drive him to utterance, — so in the truly moral nature every idea of the good becomes a necessity, every thought of the higher a command; all that we dream of and that seems so far away becomes an end and goal for our action and our life. Yet how rarely is the full practical significance of the ideal side of human nature realized!

* Gandhi published his own summary/paraphrase of Salter’s book; it can be found at Wikisource:  Ethical Religion

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