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folly to be ridiculed, but a mischief to be dreaded; and that its tendency is, in most cases, as far as it extends, destructive of true piety.
'The disposition to reverence some superhuman Power, and in some way or other to endeavour to recommend ourselves to the favour of that Power, is (more or less in different individuals) a natural and original sentiment of the human mind. The great Enemy of Man finds it easier in most cases to misdirect, than to eradicate this. If an exercise for this religious sentiment can be provided—if this natural craving after divine worship (if I may so speak) can be satisfied—by the practice of superstitious ceremonies, true piety will be much more easily extinguished; the conscience will on this point have been set at rest; God's place in the heart will, as it were, have been preoccupied by an idol; and that genuine religion which consists in a devotedness of the affections to God, operating in the improvement of the moral character, will be more effectually shut out, from the religious feelings of our nature having found another vent, and exhausted themselves on vanities of man's devising.''
Too religious, in the proper sense of the word, we cannot be. We cannot have the religious sentiments and principles too strong, or too deeply fixed, if only they have a right object. We cannot love God too warmly—or honour Him too highly— or strive to serve Him too earnestly—or trust Him too implicitly; because our duty is to love Him 'with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength.'
But too religious, in another sense, we may, and are very apt to be;—that is, we are very apt to make for ourselves too many objects of religious feeling.
Now, Almighty God has revealed Himself as the proper object of religion—as the one only Power on whom we are to feel ourselves continually dependent for all things, and the one only Being whose favour we are continually to seek. And, lest we should complain that an Infinite Being is an object too remote and incomprehensible for our minds to dwell upon, He Las manifested Himself in his Son, the man Jesus Christ, whose history and character are largely described to us in the Gospels;
'Errore of Ilomunism, 3rd Edition, Essuy I. § 3, pp. 34-37.
'As the Protestant is often inclined to look no further than to Romanism, for the origin of persecution, so is the Infidel to regard Christianity as the chief cause of it . But both are mistaken. I am convinced that atheists, should they ever become the predominant party, would persecute religion. For it is to human nature we must trace both this and many other of those evils which each man is usually disposed to attribute to the particular system he is opposed to; and nearly the same causes, which generate especial hostility towards those who differ in faith from ourselves, would be found to exist in the atheists. They would feel themselves to be regarded by the Christians, not indeed as weak and credulous, but as perverse and profane: their confidence again in their own persuasion would be as likely to be shaken by the Christian, as the Christian's, by them: all the human passions, in short, and all the views of political expediency, which have ever tempted the Christian to persecute, would have a corresponding operation with them.
'Not that I conceive most of them to have, themselves, any suspicion of this, or to be insincere in their professed abhorrence of persecution. As no one wishes to persecute, so they probably do not anticipate (under the above-mentioned supposition) such a state of things as would seem to call for coercive measures. They imagine, probably, that when they had deprived christian ministers of endowments, had publicly proclaimed the falsity of the christian faith, and had taken measures for promoting education, and circulating books calculated to enlighten the people, the whole system of religious belief would gradually, but speedily, die away, and be regarded in the same light with tales of fairies. Such, doubtless, was the notion of some, whom I have known to express regret that Buonaparte did not employ the power he possessed in conferring so great a benefit on society as he might have done, 'by abolishing Christianity.' They were thinking, probably, of no more active measures than the withholding of the support and countenance of government.
'In such expectations, every one who believes in Christianity must feel confident that they would be deceived. At first, indeed, appearances probably would be such as to promise favourably to their views. For, most of those who profess Christianity merely for fashion's sake, or in compliance with the laws of their country, would soon fall away; and would be followed by many of such as wanted firmness to support ridicule, or the disfavour of those in power. But after a time the progress of irreligion would be found to have come to a stand. When the plants 'on the stony ground' had been all scorched up, those 'on the good soil' would be found still flourishing. Sincere Christians would remain firm; and some probably would be roused to exert themselves even with increased zeal; and some apostates would be reclaimed. Complaints would then be raised, that christian preachers decried, as profane and mischievous, the books put forth by authority; and that they represented the rulers as aliens from God, and men whose example should be shunned. Those indeed who had imbibed the true spirit of the Gospel, would not fail to inculcate, after the example of the Apostles, the duty of loyal submission, even to unchristian magistrates; but it is not unlikely that some would even take a contrary course, and would thus help to bring the imputation of sedition on christian preaching universally.
'The rabble, again, would be likely occasionally to assail with tumultuous insult and outrage, the Christians; who would in consequence be represented by their enemies as occasioning these tumults; especially if, as is likely, some among them did not submit patiently to such usage, or even partly provoked it by indiscretion. And however free the generality of the Christians might be from any just suspicion of a design to resort to lawless violence in the cause of their religion, still it would be evident that a revival and renewed diffusion of Christianity, such as they were furthering, must, after it should reach a certain point, endanger the continuance of power in the hands then wielding it; and that such a change of rulers would put a stop to the plans which had been commenced for the amelioration of society. Representing then, and regarding Christianity as the great obstacle to improvement, as the fruitful source of civil dissensions, and as involving disaffection to the then existing government, they would see a necessity for actively interfering, with a view (not indeed like religious persecutors, to the salvation of souls, but) to the secular welfare of their subjects, and the security and prosperity of the civil com
munity. They would feel themselves accordingly (to say nothing of any angry passions that might intrude) liound in duty to prohibit the books, the preaching, and the assemblies of Christains. The Christians would then, in violation of the law, circulate Bibles clandestinely, and hold their assemblies in cellars, and on sequestered heaths. Coercion would of course become necessary to repress these (as they would then be)
illegal acts. And next but I need not proceed any
further; for I find I have been giving almost an exact description of the state of things when the christian Churches were spreading in the midst of Heathenism. And yet I have only been following up the conjectures, which no one (believing in Christianity) could fail to form, who was but tolerably acquainted with human nature. For 'such transactions,' says the great historian of Greece, 'take place, and always will take place (though varied in form, and in degree of violence, by circumstances), as long as human nature remains the same.'' Never can we be secured from the recurrence of the like, but by the implantation of some principle which is able to purify, to renovate, to convert that nature; in short, to 'Create The New Man.'* Christianity, often as its name has been blazoned on the banners of the persecutor—Christianity, truly understood, as represented in the writings of its founders, and honestly applied, furnishes a preventive—the only permanently effectual preventive,—of the spirit of persecution. For, as with fraudulent, so it is also with coercive, measures employed in matters pertaining to religion: we must not expect that the generality will be so far-sighted, as always to perceive their ultimate inexpediency in each particular case that may occur; they will be tempted to regard the peculiar circumstances of this or that emergency as constituting an exception to the general rule, and calling for a departure from the general principle. Whereas the plainest Christian, when he has once ascertained, as be easily may, if he honestly consult the Scriptures, what the will of God is, in this point, will walk boldly forward in the path of his duty, though he may not see at every turn whither it is leading him; and with full faith in the divine wisdom, will be ready, in pious confidence, to leave events in the hands of Providence.''
1 Thucyd. B. iii. c. 8a. - Vph. iv. 24.
'The master of superstition is the people.'
Bacon Las here shown that he perceived what is too frequently overlooked—the real origin of priestcraft. I take leave to quote again from the Errors of Romanism. 'We are accustomed to hear much of priestcraft—of the subtle arts of designing men, who imposed on the simplicity of an ignorant people, and persuaded them to believe that they, the priests, alone understood the nature of the Deity—the proper mode in which to propitiate Him—and the mysterious doctrines to which the others were to give their implicit assent; and the poor deluded people are represented as prevailed on against their better judgment, by the sophistry, and promises, and threats of these crafty impostors, to make them the keepers of thenconsciences—their mediators, and substitutes in the service of God, and their despotic spiritual rulers.
'There is undoubtedly much truth in such a representation; but it leaves on the mind an erroneous impression, because it is (at the utmost) only half the truth.
'If, indeed, in any country, priests had been Beings of a different species—or a distinct caste, as in some of the Pagan nations where the priesthood is hereditary;—if this race had been distinguished from the people by intellectual superiority and moral depravity, and if the people had been sincerely desirous of knowing, and serving, and obeying God for themselves, but had been persuaded by these demons in human form that this was impossible, and that the laity must trust them to perform what was requisite, in their stead, and submit implicitly to their guidance,—then, indeed, there would be ground for regarding priestcraft as altogether the work of the priests, and in no degree of the people. But we should remember, that in every age and country (even where they were, as the Romish priests were not, a distinct caste), priests must have been mere men, of like passions with their brethren; and though sometimes they might have, on the whole, a considerable intellectual
1 Easny 'On Persecution,' 3rd series.