Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

private views, but that his object was, in his own words, to do "some service to the cause of truth, and to the religious and civil liberties of mankind.”

We think the publication of this book timely, apart from its historical value and interest. The great principle on which rested equally the justice of the Reformation, and the Puritan secession, is now often called in question. Authority once more declares its right to supersede conscience. The thoughts and feelings of the tenth and fourteenth centuries are translated into the language of the nineteenth. Propositions, long considered as truisms, are now attacked as paradoxes. Archbishop Laud has his eulogists ; Luther his detractors. The right of the individual mind to form its faith from the most thoughtful and candid perusal of the Bible is denied. All the blood that has been shed, all the tortures which have been endured, all the miseries which have been suffered, to convert this principle into an established fact, are thus implied to have been wasted. The world has been battling blindly to establish a great heresy, repugnant to right reason and to the word of God; and the inference is, that many of the martyrs have but “passed out of one flame into another.” If this right of individual judgment be a mere figment of the brain, the wars into which it has led some of the best and noblest of the race are the greatest satires on human folly and depravity ever written in blood and consecrated by suffering and heroism.

We know and deprecate the evils of dissent, and the evils which flow from the unrestrained exercise of individual judgments in matters of religion. Atheism and fanaticisin the one denying, the other degrading, God — are the two pits into which the inquirer is liable to fall, who casts off authority and trusts to his own mind. The volumes before us are full of examples which tell against kirk as well as against church. Senseless doctrines, accompanied by bigotry equally senseless ; hatreds taking the name of duties ; passions wearing the guise of revelations ; pride and conceit speaking the language of conscience, — these too often meet us among the zealots who were associated with the Puritans, and among all great bodies of men who have opposed religious hierarchies. The dunce and the enthusiast are ever ready to supplant the established superstition with the superstition of ignorance and heated passion. But evils as bad as these cling to the best efforts of man, and arise from the impersection of his nature. Besides, it should not be forgotten, that it is chiefly persecution that forces men into fanaticism. The dreams and ravings of zealots, wrought into uncontrollable excitement by the discipline of torture and confiscation, are arguments against the extravagant pretensions and wanton cruelties of the oppressors who drove them mad. That English liberty has been preserved and extended, that the rights of the human mind in matters pertaining to government, as well as religion, have not suffered a disastrous eclipse in the shadow of absolutism, is owing to the determined stand taken by the Puritans, as a body, for liberty of conscience, and to the indomitable energy with which they fought, with the sword and with the pen, against civil and ecclesiastical tyranny.

There were evils accompanying non-conformity ; but who can compare them with those which must have followed a tame acquiescence in the exactions of the prelacy and the king? It is too common to pass over these pioneers and martyrs of English freedom, and refer the results of their labors to the agency of less powerful and more selfish spirits. “How many earnest, rugged Cromwells, Knoxes, poor peasant Covenanters, wrestling, battling for very life, in rough, miry places, have to struggle, and suffer, and fall, greatly censured, bemired, - before a beautiful Revolution of Eighty-eight can step over them, in official pumps and silk stockings, with universal threetimes-three !"

In Neal's History, we have circumstantial accounts of the errors of both parties. We should be the last to apologize for those of the Puritans. Bigotry and exclusiveness derive no charm from being practised by persecuted sects,

But we think a distinction is to be made between the intolerance of men who persecute to sustain themselves in office and dignity, and those who persecute from honest though mistaken views of the necessity of certain doctrines to salvation. Besides, persecution is a bad school in which to learn toleration. If a body of men be deprived of their dearest rights for professing conscientious opinions, it is natural that they should attach more importance to those opinions than if they were allowed their free exercise. It not only makes them more sturdy champions of their belief, but it leads them into intolerance towards others. The most impolitic course for a dominant party to pursue is, to array the passions on the side of dissent. In England, it has ever been the fashion 10 support the established church, and discourage secession, by coercion and exclusion ; yet all that the state, the pillory, and civil disabilities have done is, to multiply dissenters, and widen the breach originally made. In the case of men like the Puritans, — men of iron, to whom all the principalities and powers on earth were as nothing compared with the commands of God, on whom worldly comforts and worldly miseries could not operate as temptations or dissuasives where the interests of religion were concerned, - such a course comes under that melancholy class of offences which are blunders as well as crimes. It has been eloquently remarked, by one of the most prominent statesmen of the age, that, “even when religious feeling takes a character of extravagance and enthusiasm, and seems to threaten the order of society, and shake the columns of the social edifice, its principal danger is in its restraint. If it be allowed indulgence and expansion, like the elemental fires, it only agitates and perhaps purifies the atmosphere ; while its efforts to throw off restraint would burst the world asunder."

Few religious writers have excelled Neal, either in ardor or argument for liberty of conscience. He has anticipated Macaulay in several propositions contained in his paper in the Edinburgh Review, on “Church and State”; and, indeed, most of Macaulay's writings on the period of the Rebellion and the Protectorate eyince a close study of Neal. Though the latter preserves a strain of decorous loyalty and contented submission to the settlement of the clashing claims of Churchmen and Dissenters by the Revolution of 1688, he has many sly thrusts at the injustice and imperfection of the laws. He takes the position, in one of his prefaces, that it is the office of the civil magistrate to protect his loyal subjects in the free exercise of their religion ; not to incorporate one religion into the constitution, and make conforinity to that the test of loyalty and faith. He contends, that religion and civil government are distinct things, and stand upon a separate basis. “To incorporate one religion into the constitution, so as to make it a part of the common law, and to conclude from thence that the constitution, having a right to preserve itself, may make laws for the punishment of those that publicly oppose any one branch of it, is to put an effectual stop to the progress of the Reformation throughout the Christian world; for by this reasoning our first reformers must be condemned”; and he proceeds to show, that, if a subject of France wrote against Catholicism, he might, on the reasoning of Churchmen, be punished as a disturber of the public peace, because “ Popery is supported by law, and is a very considerable part of their constitution."

The exercise of private judgment on matters of religion, if it sometimes produces superstition, more often overthrows error. It is that intellectual action among a people, which gives vitality to their worship and creeds. It prevents faith from degenerating into a ce emony, and transfers belief from the lips to the soul. It is almost the only limit to the besotted bigotry, or the smooth indifference, which so often accompanies unquestioned religious dogmas. It is always most active when the established form of religion is most tyrannical or most debased. And it is the school in which true manliness and true godliness of character are nurtured. The faith that has grown up in a man's soul, which he has adopted from his own investigations or his own inward experience, is the faith that sustains men in temptations and in the blaze of the fires of martyrdom. In faith like this, we perceive the heroic element in the character of the Puritans. It is this which endows their history with so many of those consecrations usually considered to belong exclusively to poetry and romance. To a person who sees through the mere shows of things, the annals of the Puritans are replete with the materials of the heroic. There is no aspect of human nature more sublime, than the spectacle of men daring death, and things worse than death, under the influence of inspiration from on high. Their actions, thus springing from religious principle, and connected by a mysterious link with the invisible realities of another world, impress us with a deeper veneration than we can award to the most tremendous struggles for terrestrial objects. That is no common heroisin, which fears nothing but God's justice, which braves every thing for God's favor. That is no common heroism, which breasts the flood of popular hatred, which bares its forehead to the thunders of dominant hierarchies, which scorns alike the delusions of worldly pomp and the commands of worldly governments, which is insensible to the jeers of the scoffer and the curse of the bigot, which smites at wickedness girded round with power, which is strong in endurance as well as in action, which marches to battle chanting hymns of devotional rapture, and which looks with an unclouded eye to heaven amid the maddening tortures of the rack. Men who have thus conquered the fear of death, the love of ease, the temptations of the world, who have subdued all the softer passions and all the sensual appetites to the control of one inflexible moral purpose, who have acted through life under the sense, that there is a power on earth more authoritative than the deçisions of councils, and mightier than kings, are not the men whom worldlings can safely venture to deride, or for whom placid theologians can afford to profess contempt.

The debt of gratitude, which the world owes to the Puritans, for the stand they took for the rights of conscience and the liberties of mankind, bas never been freely paid. Their influence on modern civilization, moral, religious, and political, has rarely been justly estimated. The austerity of their manners, the peculiarities of their speech and dress, the rigor of their creeds, have been allowed to divert attention from their manifold virtues. Yet it would be difficult to name any body of men, connected by a religious bond, that has been so fruitful, not merely in divines, but in warriors, statesmen, and scholars. Milton, Selden, Hampden, Cromwell, Eliot, Pym, Knox, Baxter, Bunyan, among many others eminent in action or speculation, are names which have become woven into the texture of history. In the department of theology, the labors of the Puritans have been absolutely gigantic ; and whatever may be the estimate of their importance, no one can fail to appreciate the prodigious masses of learning which they patiently piled up as defences of the gospel, and the acuteness and grasp of thought with which they often seized the darkest and most tangled questions of metaphysical divinity.

But it is in the position they occupy in English history, that we most delight to contemplate the Puritans. We believe, that, as a body, they were the most sincere and zealous advocates of the Reformation. The taint of selfishness, of political expediency, of worldly ambition and worldly lusts, is seen in the motives which influenced the secession of the Church of England from the Church of Rome. It was a political more than a religious movement. It had its first inspiration from appetite, not from conscience. We

« AnteriorContinuar »