Page images
PDF
EPUB

The causes of superstition are pleasing and sensual' rites and ceremonies; excess of outward and pharisaical holiness; overgreat reverence of traditions, which cannot but load the Church; the stratagems of prelates for their own ambition and lucre; the favouring too much of good intentions, which openeth the gate to conceits and novelties; the taking an aim at divine matters by human, which cannot but breed mixture of imaginations; and, lastly, barbarous times, especially joined with calamities and disasters. Superstition, without a veil, is a deformed thing; for, as it addeth deformity to an ape to be so like a man, so the similitude of superstition to religion makes it the more deformed; and as wholesome meat corrupteth to little worms, so good forms and orders corrupt into a number of petty observances.

There is a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best if they go farthest from the superstition formerly received; therefore care would2 be had that (as it fareth in ill purgings) the good be not taken away with the bad, which commonly is done when the people is the reformer.

ANTITHETA ON SUPERSTITION.
Pro. Contra.

'Qui zelo peccant, non probaudi, sed 'Ut simioB, similitude cum homioc .

tamoii umundi sunt. deformitatem addit; ita superstitioni,

'Those who go wrong from excess of similitudo cum roligione. zeal, cannot indeed be approved, but 'As an ape is the more hideous for

must nevertheless be loved.' its resemUance to a man, so is super

* *' * * stition from its resemblance to religion.'

'Pnestnt nullum habere de diia opininnera, qunm coutumeliosom.

'It is better to have no opinion at all of the gods, than a degrading one.'

ANNOTATIONS.

Some use the word superstition to denote any belief which they hold to be absurd, if those who hold it can give no explanation of it. For example, some fancy that the hair will not grow well if it be cut in the wane of the moon; and that bees will not prosper unless the owner goes to the hives whenever a marriage or death occurs in his family, and announces it. But such a notion, though it may be a groundless fancy, is not to be called, in the strict sense, a superstition, unless it be connected with some sort of religious reverence for some supposed superhuman agent. Neither is superstition (as it has been defined by a popular though superficial writer) 'an excess of religion' (at least in the ordinary sense of the word excess), as if any one eould have too much of true religion: but any misdirection of religious feeling; manifested either in showing religious veneration or regard to objects which deserve none; that is, properly speaking, the worship of false gods; or, in the assignment of such a degree, or such a kind of religious veneration to any object, as that object, though worthy of some reverence, does not deserve; or in the worship of the true God through the medium of improper rites and ceremonies.

1 Sensual. Affecting the senses. » Would. Should.

It was the unsparing suppression of both those kinds of superstition which constituted the distinguished and peculiar merit of that upright and zealous prince, Hezekiah. He was not satisfied, like many other kings, with putting down that branch of superstition which involves the breach of the first Commandment—the setting up of false gods; but was equally decisive in his reprobation of the other branch also—the worship of the true God by the medium of prohibited emblems, and with unauthorized and superstitious rites. Of these two kinds of superstition, the latter is continually liable, in practice, to slide into the former by such insensible degrees, that it is often hard to decide, in particular cases, where the breach of the second Commandment ends, and that of the first begins. The distinction is not, however, for that reason useless; perhaps it is even the more useful on that very account, and was for that reason preserved, in those two Commandments, of which the second serves as a kind of outwork to the first, to guard against all gradual approaches to a violation of it—to keep men at a distance from infringing the majesty of 'the jealous God.' Minds strongly predisposed to superstition, may be compared to heavy bodies just balanced on the verge of a precipice. The slightest touch will send them over, and then, the greatest exertion that can be made may be insufficient to arrest their fall

'The one is unbelief, the other is contumely; and certainly
superstition is tlte reproach of the Deity.'

Bacon might have said that both are unbelief; for, he who rashly gives heed to superstitious delusions, errs not from excm of faith, but from want of faith; since what is true in his belief, he receives not because it is true,—but because it agrees with some prejudice or fancy of his own; and he is right when he is right, only by chance. Having violated the spirit of the first Commandment, by regarding what is human with the veneration due to that only which is divine, his worship, even of the true God, becomes an abomination. 'He has set up idols in his heart, and the Lord, the jealous God, will set his face against that man.'

And in reference to the contumely of God, it is a circumstance very remarkable, that, in many instances at least, superstition not only does not promote true religion, but even tends to generate profaneness. In proof of the strange mixture of superstition and profaneness that leads to the jokes and sallies of wit that are frequently heard among the Spanish peasantry, even in respect of the very objects of superstitious reverence, I can cite the testimony of an eminently competent witness. The like strange mixture is found in other Roman-catholic, and also in Pagan countries, particularly among the Hindus, who are described as habitually reviling their gods in the grossest terms, on the occasion of any untoward event. And in our own country nothing is so common a theme of profane jests among the vulgar of all ranks as the Devil; a large proportion of the superstition that exists being connected more or less with the agency of Evil Spirits.

This curious anomaly may perhaps be, in a great measure at least, accounted for, from the consideration, that, as superstition imposes a yoke rather of fear than of love, her votaries are glad to take revenge, as it were, when galled by this yoke, and to indemnify themselves in some degree both for the irksomeness of their restraints and tasks, and also for the degradation (some sense of which is always excited by a consciousness of slavish dread), by taking liberties whenever they dare, either in the way of insult or of playfulness, with the objects of their dread.

Bat how comes it that they ever do dare, as we see is the fact, to take these liberties? This will perhaps be explained by its being a characteristic of superstition to enjoin, and to attribute efficacy to, the mere performance of some specific outward acte,—the use of some material object, without any loyaL affectionate devotion of heart being required to accompany such acte, and to pervade the whole life as a ruling motive. Hence, the rigid observance of the precise directions given, leaves the votary secure, at ease in conscience, and at liberty, as well as in a disposition, to indulge in profaneness. In like manner a patient, who dares not refuse to swallow a nauseous dose, and to confine himself to a strict regimen, yet who is both vexed, and somewhat ashamed, at submitting to the annoyance, will sometimes take his revenge as it were, by abusive ridicule of the medical attendant and his drugs; knowing that this will not, so long as he does but take the medicines, diminish their efficacy. Superstitious observances are a kind of distasteful or disgusting remedy, which, however, is to operate if it be but swallowed, and on which accordingly the votary sometimes ventures gladly to revenge himself. Thus does superstition generate profaneness.

There was an ancient superstition, the baptizing (as it was called) of church-bells, which probably had some share in leading to a profanation existing among us,—the ceremony of what is called the christening of a ship. The Sacrament of Baptism is often called christening; i.e., making a person a Christian;—a member of the Church of Christ. And because it is usual to give a name on that occasion (though this is no essential part of the Sacrament), hence the word is often applied, though most irreverently, to the naming of a dog, a horse, or a ship. And in this last case, it is usual to go through the ceremony of dashing a bottle of wine against the ship's side; which is in fact a kind of Parody of the Sacrament of Baptism, This profanation is practised and countenanced by persons who, I doubt not, have no deliberate design to do anything profane; but who are culpably careless of the tendency of what they are doing. And it may be hoped that when they are brought to consider the matter, they will cease to give such occasion to irreligious scoffers.

'As the contumely is greater towards God, so the danger is greater

towards men.'

It is somewhat strange that it should be necessary to remark on the enormity—the noxious character—of all superstition. The mischiefs of superstition are, I conceive, much underrated. It is by many regarded, not as any sin, but as a mere harmless folly, at the worst;—as, in some instances, an amiable weakness, or even a salutary delusion. Its votaries are pitied, as in some cases subjected to needless and painful restraints, and undergoing groundless terrors;—sometimes they are ridiculed as enslaved to absurd and puerile observances: but whether pitied or laughed at, superstitious Christians are often regarded as likely—at least as not the less likely on account of their superstition,—to have secured the essentials of religion:—as believing and practising what is needful towards salvation, and as only carrying their faith and their practice, unnecessarily and unreasonably, to the point of weak credulity and foolish scrupulosity. This view of the subject has a strong tendency to confirm the superstitious, and even to add to their number. They feel that if there is any doubt, they are surely on the safe side. 'Supposing I am in error on this or that point' (a man may say), 'I am merely doing something superfluous; at the worst I suffer some temporary inconvenience, and perhaps have to encounter some ridicule; but if the error be on the other side, I risk my salvation by embracing it; my present course therefore is evidently the safest—I am, after all, on the safe side.' —As if there were any safe side but the side of truth; and as if it could be safe to manifest distrust of a skilful physician by combining with his medicines all the nostrums of all the ignorant practitioners in the neighbourhood.

'How far the superstition of any individual may be excusable or blameable in the sight of God, can be pronounced by Him alone, who alone is able to estimate each man's strength or weakness, his opportunities of gaining knowledge, and his employment or neglect of those opportunities. But the same may be said of every other offence, as well as of those in question. Of superstition itself, in all its various forms and degrees, I cannot think otherwise than that it is not merely a

« PreviousContinue »